Should You 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 Reserve disability pension status 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. Hi, I have some questions and hopefully someone can guide me in the right direction. I was AD AF for 10 years. In that 10 year period I was frequently seen by physical therapy and paid of of pocket for a chiropractor due to chronic upper back pain. No doctor ever ordered me an MRI. I separated two years ago and joined the reserves. So, 2 years ago, my civilian doctor ordered me an MRI on my upper back and It showed 1 herniated disk in my t-spine. I went through the local VA office and they only gave me a percentage for my lower back and not my upper. So I need to refile for my upper back. Last week I went for another MRI and now I have 4 herniated discs in my T-spine. Saturday I have a “world wide duty” appointment and I’m assuming it’s because of this. What do I do at this point? The problem started while I was AD. Can I medically retire from the reserves? I have no idea what I’m about to walk into and what I should expect. I hate the possibility of throwing away almost 13 years of service. Help!

    • Great question, Kristina!

      First, if you haven’t already done so, I’d recommend reviewing your medical records (civilian and military) and service records with a Veteran Service Officer. They can help you document the service connection between the military and your discs. You can find VSOs at your local chapters of the Disabled American Veterans, the American Legion, the VFW, and even MOAA.

      Next, it’s possible for you to be medically retired due to your length of service. The rules for a disability retirement are complicated and the process is lengthy, but you essentially get the higher pension amount of your disability rating or your equivalent years of service (active duty plus Reserve points).

      I’d recommend joining and posting specific details about your symptoms and your length of service (point count). The site was founded by a JAG and has hundreds of members who’ve been through similar situations.

  2. Hello Currently I have 3 active years and 16 National Guard totaling 19 years. Recently I have been placed on active medical orders due to injury. Its looking like I might be unfit for duty due to injury. Would I receive a medical retirement plus disability or get a seperation retirement with disability and does it matter if I dont reach 20 years??

    • Christian, if you already have 19 good years (not just 19 years of service but 19 actual good years) then federal law protects you from being separated:

      If you’re going to a Medical Evaluation Board then the most likely results are either a disability pension or continuation to a National Guard pension. (Assuming that you can complete 20 good years to receive a Notice Of Eligiblity for your pension.) It’s possible that you’d reach 20 good years before the MEB process was finished.

      Again, posting the details of your situation to can help you figure out what’s more likely.

  3. Hi, I’m a veteran with a couple questions. Not sure anyone can answer them or refer me to someone who can. I served as a Navy Reservist with (4) deployments since 9/11. My last deployment was in 2008, and I was re-called for a 5th to Afghanistan in 2009. I was held back due to a medical issue and was not deployed. I decided to go IRR and after about a year into it, I decided I wanted to start drilling as a reservist again. Now, during my time as a reservist and on active duty (deployments), I acquired injuries and respiratory issues. Never had these issues prior to the military. Since I had to go through MEPS again, which is routine I suppose for any service member returning from IRR back to Active Reserve. MEPS rejected me based off my respiratory and back injury. These are medical issues that were already in my medical record. I was given an honorable discharge in 2013 after my contract ended. However, shouldn’t they have medically retired me instead? If so, can this still be done? I feel as though the Navy could have reviewed my medical file and found me unfit for duty medically. Am I crazy to think this? Any help would be great! Thanks

    • Isabel, a disability pension is one of the options of a medical evaluation board.
      I’m not sure why you weren’t offered one when you were applying for a drill billet. It might have depended on your length of service or the severity of the injuries & respiratory issues.

      One starting point could be posting the details of your situation to the It’s founded by a JAG and includes hundreds of members who’ve been through MEBs and PEBs. They know all of the timelines and processes and can help you figure out the details of your situation. Based on what you learn there, you may be able to apply to the Board for the Correction of Navy Records. That’s a situation which would require the help of a Veteran Service Officer or even a lawyer.

  4. I am currently in the Army National Guard and just denied two mobilizations. My packet went to a preliminary board and the results was I was not retainable. I am waiting on another official medical board, but I am trying to figure out what does this mean for me.

    I have 22yrs and my eligibility letter, 5640pts (with 14yrs being active duty years). I am currently receiving 60% VA disability.

    What do think my options will be coming out of this board? I am told that I will have 3 options. Do you think one of those options is to take retirement pay immediately? If so, how is this reduced compared to at age 60?

    Thank You

    • Danielle, if you already have a Notice Of Eligibility for retirement with at least 20 good years, then the most likely option is that you’ll be offered a disability retirement.

      That’ll give you the option of retiring under whichever National Guard pension calculation gives you the most money– your point count or the MEB’s disability rating.

      In both cases when you retire awaiting pay then you’ll continue to receive your VA disability income until you reach age 60. (You might start your pension a few months earlier if you deployed to a combat zone or were mobilized for national emergencies after 28 January 2008.) At age 60 you’ll start your pension.

      If you have more questions about the MEB then I strongly recommend posting the details to It’s founded by a JAG and includes hundreds of members who’ve been through MEBs and PEBs. They know all of the timelines and processes and can help you figure out the details of your pay & benefits options, not just the decisions.

  5. I was on active duty for 9.5 years and now this is my 2nd years as Reservist. I have 100% VA disability ratings(permanent). And now, I am in more pain than before and location of my pain in my body is increasing. If I want to MEB, what would be a good route for me to take? What do you recommend? and What would be a disadvantage for me? Thanks…

    • Marc, the first advice is to get as healthy as you can.

      Next, you should talk through your situation with your doctor and then see a military doctor to discuss your options. They’ll get you started on the MEB process.

      You should also join the and discuss the details of your disability rating there. It was founded by a JAG and its members include hundreds of veterans who’ve been through your situation. They’re very familiar with the MEB process and they can help you with any potential pitfalls.

  6. My husband was active Army for 8.5 years and has been in the reserves for 3 years. He currently has less than a month left before he is supposed to ETS. He has 70% VA disability and has several other pending claims that will most likely get him to 90-100%. He has a profile for the reserves starting he’s not allowed to be around weapons, combat, etc which was given to his commanders about 5 months ago. They did nothing with his profile and at this point they are trying to force him to ETS instead of getting a med board and getting medically retired. They gave him the option to reenlist for 3 years but at this point he’s worried he will get deployed again regardless of his profile. What should we do?

    • Amanda, this is a tough problem. The first priority for your spouse should be getting as healthy as he can.

      Even if he wanted to re-enlist, I’m not sure that his medical record would pass a pre-deployment screening. Instead, I’d discuss the situation with a military doctor (and perhaps a JAG) to make sure that he’s not discharged at ETS until all of his medical issues have been addressed.

      In addition to the military doctor (and JAG) he’ll also want to keep working with the VA to update his claim as he works with the military medical system.

      I hope this answers your questions— please let me know how you’re doing.

  7. Hi I’m a veteran that was retired from the Army Reserve because of medical conditions service connected. I was retired with a regular 20 years plus retirement. My orders say because of medical conditions. I’ve been retired for the past 12 years. Should the army have retired me on a medical discharge and started paying me for retirement the last 12 years and assign me a disability rating? The VA has assigned me a 100 percent total disability. What are my options? Thank you for your help.

    • Arthur, without knowing any further details in your situation, the Army probably made the right choice at the Medical Evaluation Board.

      I’m guessing that your MEB disability rating was at least 30%. Because you apparently were already qualified to retire (with a Notice Of Eligibility letter) then your Reserve pension should have resulted in the higher amount when compared to a disability pension.
      Note that by federal law, a disability pension is limited to 75% even if the disability rating is higher.

      Your Reserve pension will start paying at age 60, and even if the disability Reserve pension was the higher amount then that would also have started paying at age 60. Between the time you retired awaiting pay and age 60, you’re only eligible for VA disability compensation.

      I can’t tell what went into the VA’s 100% disability rating, but that’s a completely separate process (and a different part of the federal government) than the Army’s MEB. Because your VA disability rating is at least 50%, when your Reserve pension starts at age 60 then you should be eligible for Concurrent Retirement Disability Pay. You’ll get both your current VA disability compensation as well as your Reserve pension.

      If you decide to dig into the details of the MEB and the VA disability rating process, I’d suggest posting your question at It was founded by a JAG and has thousands of veterans who’ve also been through the MEB process. Your situation may be similar to theirs, and they can advise you on the MEB’s logic as well as on the VA rater’s decision. The members and the lawyer are also familiar with the law and can help you figure out any errors.

  8. 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?

    • 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?