Should the wounded still serve?

The following idea looks good at first, but turns out to be a nightmare waiting to happen. Via Intel Dump, I found a Washington Post story about the military’s changing attitude toward mandatory medical retirement of the severely wounded and disabled:

In a shift in military culture, the U.S. armed forces have recently announced new efforts to keep seriously wounded or disabled soldiers on active duty. Although there is no clear written policy, the sentiment is being echoed down from the White House.
“When we’re talking about forced discharge, we’re talking about another age and another” military, President Bush told wounded soldiers at Walter Reed last year. “This is a new age, and this is a new [military]. Today, if wounded service members want to remain in uniform and can do the job, the military tries to help them stay.”
Military commanders cite advances in medical technology as the main reason for the shift. Better prosthetics — such as Rozelle’s $7,000 leg — are allowing some of the wounded to regain their fitness and continue to serve. Others say the military’s new attitude toward the disabled is simply mirroring society’s.

In April, the Army formed the Disabled Soldier Support System, or DS3, a resource network available to soldiers who are 30 percent or more disabled — paralysis or the loss of a limb or an eye. The DS3 helps soldiers weigh their options regarding retirement or trying to stay on active duty. The Army estimates that almost 900 of those injured in Iraq are eligible for the program.

My first reaction to the story was “sounds reasonable to me.” Wounded vets deserve thanks and recognition, and it also struck me as a good way to keep motivated and experienced personnel around to pass on knowledge to others.
Then I reconsidered.
At first I came up with lots of hypothetical situations where a combat unit’s logistics effort would be severely hampered by having to account for extra medical supplies, hyper-specialized prostheses, and additional medical staff (or at least more medical training for regular troops already overstretched by training requirements). But let’s set all that aside for now. I’ll be generous and grant that it might be a net “Good Thing™” to let a 100% combat-ready sevicemember get back into the fight if he can completely hold up his end … even if his injury would have meant an automatic medical discharge in days gone by.
I’d rather take aim at another possibility, as suggested by Intel Dump:

I’m glad to see the military adopting an enlightened attitude on this issue, so as to retain some of its wounded warriors who might otherwise be cast aside due to the inflexible application of personnel rules. If a soldier is fit to fight, he or she should be allowed to stay in uniform. Similarly, if a soldier is not fit to fight, but is fit to do some staff job, then he or she should be allowed to stay in that limited capacity, so as to free some other soldier to serve on the front line. We owe these wounded vets a great debt, and I think giving them the opportunity to continue their service is a great way to pay them back

If wounded servicemembers aren’t fit to fight, but are allowed to hold non-combat jobs, I can think of several problems that might result from letting them stay in:

  • Non-combat billets would become somewhat harder for able-bodied servicemembers to fill, because the wounded would all be in those selfsame jobs by definition. This would increase the regular troops’ chances of being sent into battle … which would breed resentment and cause morale problems.
  • The wounded troops would presumably be drawing a VA pension, making them paid more highly than regular troops at the same rank. Again you’d breed resentment, and could also create an unexpected financial incentive to become “lightly” wounded or disabled. Think of your typical guardhouse lawyer (sea lawyer for us maritime types), and imagine the possibilities for potential malingerers.
  • Would all injured troops be eligible to remain on active duty, or only those wounded by enemy action … and why? At the moment, I can’t think of a non-arbitrary way to solve this issue.
  • What level of disability would be considered “too disabled”? Do we use a VA disability percentage as a cutoff, say above 50%? Do we instead base the decision on what jobs to keep open to the wounded by looking at which ones can be altered with “reasonable accomodations” (ADA lawyers reading this will shudder)?
  • What kind of career development damage could a wounded servicemember suffer if he knows he’ll never need certain skills/knowledge again? An amputee who used to be a Damage Controlman on a frigate isn’t going to work on his shoring and patching/plugging skills under wartime shipboard conditions, so how can he hope to compete with his able-bodied peers for promotion?
  • In a related vein, must there be parallel career tracks for every specialty, one for wounded personnel and one for the rest? If so, does the military really want to instantly double its HR headaches and overhead?

These are just ideas I came up with off the top of my head. I’m sure there are plenty more I haven’t thought of.
So it seems my second impression’s the more reliable one. If the wounded cannot recover fully and resume their original combat-ready, deployable status, then the sensible thing to do is to retire them with a big thank you and a pension. Being nice to the wounded ought to take a back seat to keeping our military prepared to kill people and break things in the most effective way possible.

Disclaimer: I’m a medically-retired vet, rated at 100% service connected disability. I wasn’t wounded, just injured in an accident.

UPDATE: Posse Incitatus is on the same page as Intel Dump, but I’m still not convinced.

  1. I’m in general agreement with your take, however, let me throw in a thought. The Guard and Reserve are pejoratively referred to as weekend warriors with maybe a little justification. Their duty usually encompasses one weekend a month and a yearly extended several weeks in uniform. Prior to being deployed, Guardsmen and Reservists spend the bulk of their time in training, equipment maintenance, and drills. It would seem to me that disabled vets could fit easily into the training/upkeep/drill routine and provide considerable benefit without much cost (since it’s part-time). The only caveat needed would be to not permit the disabled guys to ever be deployed.

  2. But what about the objections I raised in that bulleted list above? Wouldn’t they still be problems if you tried this policy with Reservists and Guardsmen?

  3. First off – I’ve never served, so I may be way off base – but I think that they should be permitted to stay active. I don’t think that someone with a prosthetic arm or leg should be in combat, however – and agree with your points in that regard. Perhaps there would be a limited number of job types available which are not front line?

  4. Barb,
    I understand where you’re coming from, but if the wounded start filling up the non-combat jobs, then the regular troops stand an even better chance of being sent into combat. That sounds like a morale problem waiting to happen.
    Don’t even get me started on the potential for malingerers taking advantage of this policy too.

  5. What To Do With The Wounded?

    To: Brain Shavings

    From: the desk of the Chairman


  6. Patton would know what to do with malingerers. Besides – I don’t think we want screw offs at the front anyways.
    I just think that we should not throw out good people who can no longer serve their initial job types. Our society has decided to throw away everything, and that’s a bad sign to me.
    I am not against medical discharges – only that they should be automatic and forced. I once worked with a guy who was in the Navy, injured in a bike accident, and declared something liek 80 or 90% disabled, and forced out on medical discharge. He didn’t want to leave, and there was nothing about his physical condition which prevented him from doing his job. He worked with me for years – he played sports with his son, etc. It was silly to call him disabled beyond his job – which was as a nuke tech on a submarine.

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