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There's a little-known Army panel whose decisions can have an enormous impact on the lives of current and former U.S. service members: the Board for Correction of Military Records. The Board is supposed to correct errors or injustices in a service member’s records, like a discharge that denies a vet medical benefits or forces a soldier out after reporting a sexual assault. It’s there to keep the Army honest, but a Fusion investigation found it's doing anything but.

We found that when service members file appeals that could lay blame on the Army or result in significant benefit payments to the veteran, the default answer is often no. Fusion analyzed thousands of Board decisions, reviewed hundreds of internal documents, and conducted nearly 50 interviews and found a system that’s so impenetrable and the results so often negative, that many veterans have given up hope for justice.

“Each case has its own outrage,” said Michael Wishnie, a professor and deputy dean at Yale Law School. “They routinely ignore the evidence, the medicine, the rules and the law to deny veterans benefits.”  

The Army Board says it grants relief in about 41 percent of cases it reviews. Most of those cases involved requests to correct clerical errors, and other purely administrative matters.  We analyzed publicly available decisions for veterans appealing three common discharges between 2001 and 2012 that disqualified them from receiving Army medical benefits. We found that only about 2 percent were granted a medical evaluation, which would be just the first step in getting medical benefits from the Army.

Veterans and lawyers say the system is broken. Board members spend an average of about three minutes and 45 seconds per application, even though some are hundreds of pages long. In most cases they rubber stamp draft decisions prepared by Army staff. While the Board’s decisions can be appealed in federal court, that only happens in an estimated 1 percent of cases, lawyers say.