Should Your Choose Medical Separation Or Retirement From The Reserves


Most of my e-mail this month has been about military retirement and disability compensation. Three different readers write:

Reader #1:
I am a Reserve member with 18 yrs 10 months of qualifying service. 12+ years are active duty time. I was just mobilized and was injured during training. The injury is listed as a grounds for a medical board. Can I be separated for medical reasons with almost 19 qualifying years?

Reader #2:
I have a question, my brother has been in the reserves for 15+ years (enlisted in 1999). He was injured in a motor vehicle accident 5 years ago and was able to stay in despite brief periods out for a surgery. He now may need another minor surgery that may impact his ability to pass the annual physical exam, he wants to stay in at least another 5 years. If he can’t pass the exam – will he lose 100% of any pension he might have 5 years from now if he passes the medical exam? 

Reader #3:
My husband has 15 good years in the army between the ARNG and active duty. He was just placed into the IRR. He receives VA disability for a back injury that only seems to be getting worse as he gets older. He went into the IRR because he doesn’t feel that his back can hold up to the stresses of the military and even his civilian job is becoming difficult for him. He was considering trying to get a medical retirement due to the circumstances but wasn’t sure if that was an option anymore or even an option at all with only 15 years and now being placed into the IRR. What are his options? Thanks.

Nobody will be separated. All three retirements are safe. However that retirement could be a disability pension, and it may happen sooner than 20 years.
Federal law says that once you reach 18 years of service, you can only be retired— not separated. That includes 18 “good years” as well as 18 years of active duty.


Check your service record

When you reach 18 years, your should verify that your service’s personnel system also has the correct data to show that. If the first reader hasn’t already done so, they should check their Reserve point count and “good years” to make sure that they’ve been given credit for reaching the 18-year mark. If there’s a medical board then it’s better to fix any service record errors or omissions now instead of after the process starts.

For the second and third readers, until they reach 18 years, separation is still a possibility. However all three servicemembers have at least 15 good years and would be eligible for a Temporary Early Retirement Authority pension if their services offered it. If they wanted to reach 20 good years, and were physically able to do so, then they would probably be given that choice. (The second reader’s brother would be given a waiver for the annual physical exam.) If they were not physically able to reach 20 years then they would be eligible for a medical (disability) retirement.


Get healthy

This is the top priority before any medical boards. For the first reader’s question, every mobilization is different but they may be kept on active duty (with Tricare coverage) until the injury is resolved. You want to keep health insurance (or VA treatment) so that your medical expenses are covered even if you’re not on active duty. I hope that the second and third servicemembers are seeing a VA doctor or a primary care doc (through their civilian employer’s health insurance). A few servicemembers try to downplay (or even hide) the severity of their injury, and any delays in exams or treatment usually make things that much worse. Get healthy before working on the career questions. 


The Physical Evaluation Board

The next decision is how long to continue on active duty, drills, or in the IRR. If their injury results in a permanent disability then they could be retired now. The medical board could recommend an early retirement (based on their point count) or a disability retirement (based on the disability rating percentage). A military disability retirement is also known as a Chapter 61 retirement for the governing section of federal law. Their pension would be based on the calculation that produces the higher amount.

A Physical Evaluation Board decides among three main options:

  • continue in the service (active, drilling, or IRR) with treatment and eventually receive a traditional Reserve/Guard retirement, or
  • receive a disability retirement (Chapter 61) now instead of a Reserve/Guard retirement later, which would start pension payments now instead of “retired awaiting pay” until age 60, or
  • Temporary Disability Retired List (TDRL) with periodic reassessments for either retirement or a return to duty.

For the first reader, the medical board may also recommend that they stay on mobilization orders, continue treatment, complete the mobilization, and afterward continue as a drilling Reservist. In that case the Reserve personnel system will start tracking their sanctuary status once they reach a total of 16 years of points (not just good years but total point count). The personnel branch will want them to demobilize before reaching 18 years of points.

Image of the Department of Veterans Affairs logo |

Click the image to find a VSO.

If Reserve/Guard servicemembers reach 18 years of points (over 6570 points) while mobilized for active duty then they have sanctuary status. They become eligible to remain on active duty for an active-duty retirement instead of a Reserve retirement. It takes the explicit permission of an admiral or a general to allow that to happen, and most services discourage it. But again the top priority should be to get healthy and maintain health insurance coverage.

All three servicemembers should make sure their diagnosis and treatment are thoroughly documented. Even if they recover their mobility and can pass annual physical exams, their injuries could be considered a lifetime disability (especially if they could get worse with age). Talk with a VA Veteran Services Officer to document a VA disability claim. There’s no need to file a claim yet, but the VSO can make sure that they know what to document and how to file a claim when they retire. Ideally they’d process the VA claim at the same time that they’re retiring from the service, and that way they’ll maximize their VA benefits.

Even with a traditional Reserve/Guard pension (not a disability retirement), injuries related to combat (or to training for combat), may also be eligible for Combat Related Special Compensation or Concurrent Retirement Disability Pay. However the Reserve/Guard pension and the CRSC or CRDP will not start until eligibility age for the pension, which is age 60 for most Reserve/Guard retirees. For this reason, a disability retirement (which begins payments immediately) may be worth more in the long term than a traditional Reserve/Guard retirement. A disability retirement also includes health insurance when the pension starts instead of at age 60. Injured readers can consult the PEBForum website for more medical and financial advice from vets who’ve dealt with similar issues.

… and let’s be careful out there! 

For everyone, not just these three readers: you can always search for posts with keywords like “good year”, disability, sanctuary, and TERA. (Some of those are linked in the “Related posts” section down below.) You can also search the titles of every post at the archives. If your search doesn’t produce what you’re seeking then please post a comment, contact me, or e-mail me at NordsNords at GMail. I may not always know the answer, but I know how to find out.


Related articles:
Military Sanctuary And Disability
Military Reserve Sanctuary And Active Duty Retirement Navigating the Medical Evaluation System Combat Related Special Compensation

WHAT I DO: I help you reach financial independence. For free. I retired in 2002 after 20 years in the Navy's submarine force. I wrote "The Military Guide to Financial Independence and Retirement" to share the stories of over 50 other financially independent servicemembers, veterans, and families. All of my writing revenue is donated to military-friendly charities.

  1. Reply
    Gwendolyn Hood February 10, 2018 at 11:22 PM

    I have orders placing me medically disqualified for retention and was given the option to go into the retired reserve. I have a ID card reflecting that. I have a total of 5624 points, 14 years AD and 4 good years reserve. My form 249 shows a total of 19 years. Do I qualify for retirement at age 60?

    • Reply
      Doug Nordman February 12, 2018 at 11:15 AM

      Gwendolyn, I’m very confused by the facts you’ve stated.

      If you have an ID card stating that you’re a retired Army Reserve veteran then yes, you’re presumably awaiting a pension.

      If you have 14 years of active duty and four good years in the Reserve then you’d have a total of 18 good years. When your Form 249 point count shows 19 good years, though, it means that you have a total of 19 good years.

      A typical Reserve/National Guard retirement is based on reaching at least 20 good years, regardless of the the point count or the mix of active/Reserve years. However if you’ve indeed been medically retired then you have a disability retirement, which is a different section of federal law. It’s also based on your Reserve medical disability rating and does not require 20 good years.

      Here’s a couple of options:
      – Check your retirement letters from the Army Reserve and Army HRC and let me know more details. The first question is whether you’re “retired awaiting pay”, or whether you’ve been given a disability retirement. (It’s also possible that the Army Reserve has given you a “separation” or “discharge” type of retirement, but those are very rare.) You could comment here or e-mail NordsNords at Gmail.
      – Post your questions at the It’s founded by a JAG and has hundreds of disabled veterans who’ve been through the medical evaluation board process. They can walk you through all of the issues of both your medical disability retirement and your VA disability compensation.

Comment? Question? What's on your mind?