100326-N-3327M-103 SAN DIEGO (March 26, 2010) Sailors man the rails on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz (CVN 68) as the ship transits into its homeport at Naval Base Coronado. Nimitz and embarked Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 11 returned to its homeport of San Diego after completing an eight-month deployment to the U.S. 5th Fleet and 7th Fleet areas of responsibility. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class James Mitchell/Released) (MC3 James Mitchell / U.S. Navy)
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Officials are struggling to close thousands of open fleet jobs with the possibility of pulling some sailors off shore duty. That comes, in part, because of those who aren’t pulling their weight.
From boot camp onward, there’s always chatter about a few slackers who fake or exploit a strained ankle or cold or other health problem to get the easy life.
But a startling new report by the Navy’s bean-counters puts a figure on it that that is four times greater than previously believed, what officials are calling a “shadow population” who aren’t reporting their medical conditions to avoid losing pay or who are milking their limited duty status to avoid going back to sea duty, where days can be longer and more stressful.
The Naval Audit Service recently estimated there are nearly 16,000 officers and sailors who are medically unqualified to deploy — but who show up as fully qualified for sea in the service’s databases. When the Navy taps them for sea duty or a deployable position, they report their medical issue that quashes the assignment. That means the Navy will have to leave the billet open — or pull another sailor on even shorter notice. It also makes it that much harder for those on sea duty to get good shore duty gigs.
The audit also found widespread problems with the current tracking system, where many medically unfit sailors are marked as deployable while others who are fit are still carried on the rolls of limited duty. The findings in the Sept. 30 report have prompted a crackdown on LIMDU lawbreakers and a forthcoming overhaul of the shoddy databases.
“The Navy is reeling from the number of people who cannot deploy, all those lost man days,” said a Navy personnel source familiar with the issue. “LIMDU population is a big part of it and we currently don’t even know who they all are — the system is that bad.”
The poor tracking has led to unplanned losses and billet gaps, often at that last minute. The medical community is also concerned that the untracked medical issues may complicate treatment for sailors. As part of the crackdown, Navy leaders directed that every sailor’s deployment status be checked at least three times a year, including anytime they visit a medical clinic, as one way to grasp how widespread the problems are.
“We’re looking at getting awareness of this potential shadow population that we believe exists,” said Rear Adm. John Alexander, the Navy’s head detailer, in a Jan. 30 phone interview. “Right now, that 16,000 number identified by the Navy Audit Service is just an estimate.”
The Naval Audit Service’s estimates put the first number to a problem that officials — including Alexander — have long thought existed. It was easier, officials say, to live with this shadow population when the service was much bigger.
“We’re a much smaller Navy than we were years ago,” Alexander said. “We’re much leaner and if you’re going to be a lean organization, you need to understand the deployability of all of your sailors.”
Alexander said the shadow population isn’t responsible for the majority of unfilled shipboard jobs, but said it may be exacerbating the problems — especially at the last minute.
“Dropouts — if an individual falls out late in the process — are what can hurt us and ultimately form gaps at sea,” Alexander said.
These problems became painfully obvious over the past decade, when the Navy was pulling sailors from shore duty to deploy to the war zones as individual augmentees. It wasn’t until someone got orders — or actually showed up at a deployment processing center — that he’d report his medical condition, from arrythmic heartbeats to herniated discs to knee surgery recovery, rendering him undeployable. That led to wasted time, money and the possibility of short-notice deployment orders.
It was for all of these reasons that Navy Personnel Command persuaded the Naval Audit Service to investigate and quantify the Navy’s real limited duty population and come up with potential fixes.
“What we’re trying to do is open up the visibility, to better understand what that shadow population is,” Alexander said. “Not knowing those individuals’ [deployment status] breeds inefficiency in our distribution process.”
Alexander’s detailing shop has been tasked with getting a handle on the size of the Navy’s limited duty population and classifying each person by levels of “deployability.” They’re also training command and hospitals in how to update their deployable status, noting that it’s crucial to fix people or send them home.
Limited duty is a “documented period of medically restricted duty,” which is given in six-month increments by order of a medical evaluation board, the audit said.
If a sailor is hurt or sick to the extent he can’t “fully execute their assigned duties and responsibilities, including operational [and] worldwide assignability, for 90 days or greater,” he must be “referred to a medical evaluation board for placement in a medically restricted status,” the audit said.
That board can recommend placing a sailor on limited duty or returning him to medically unrestricted duty once he is well. But if he is unable to return to duty, the board can refer him to a physical evaluation board that can begin outprocessing him.
No longer will there be as big a gray area. New deployment categories, or “D-CATs,” are being developed to assess what a sailor can be asked to do. Every sailor will soon get a classification from fully deployable to totally medically restricted.
“If we have better visibility of what those limiting conditions are ahead of time, we could be more efficient on how we distribute and use these sailors,” Alexander said.
Hiding in plain sight
The limited duty program succeeds in getting people off ships. The Navy’s documented limited duty population has averaged roughly 3,000 monthly for many years and 73 percent of those documented on limited duty came from sea duty billets. So it’s typically on shore duty where the problems start. That’s where sailors hide from the system or milk their LIMDU status — and the feckless tracking system — to stay off sea duty as long as possible, sources say.
During its nearly two-year study, the Naval Audit Service concentrated on shore duty and found that active-duty service members with deployment-limiting medical conditions were not always assigned a duty status that reflected those limitations, estimating that 9,509 of them should have been referred to a medical evaluation board, and 7,784 should have been placed in a medically restricted status.
There’s another good reason to hide from limited duty — money. Currently, there are 21 special pays and bonuses that stop immediately or within months of a service member going on the LIMDU rolls.
Until those pay penalties are fixed, sources say, people will try to hide.
The Navy’s top detailer disagrees. He believes the issues are the result of shore duty being a convenient time to get medical treatments, rather than the result of hiding.
“Everyone is allowed to get sick,” Alexander said. “We work in a physically demanding environment, so through the life cycle of service, you’re likely to get hurt more than once.”
“The majority of the sailors are trying to do the right thing — that a majority of sailors simply try to wait until they get on shore duty to get their medical issues take care of.”
Still, doctors have been willing participants in helping sailors hide from limited duty, the audit found, noting that 12 out of 16 doctors interviewed said they wouldn’t report a limiting medical condition if it didn’t affect the sailor’s shore duty work.
Ways to 'milk' the system
The auditors dug into the way the documented LIMDU sailors are tracked. What they found wasn’t pretty, either.
As much as 40 percent of the limited duty population lingered on LIMDU for an average of 50 days after their limited duty period had expired — some for as many as 567 days.
“Many people on LIMDU want to stay on LIMDU and find ways to milk the system,” said the senior personnel source, who asked for anonymity to publicly address an issue officials are grappling with.
LIMDU is also a ticket to get off shore duty right away, he added.
There are also problems on the other end. The auditors found that 77 percent of those on LIMDU still showed up as “worldwide assignable” up to 130 days after going LIMDU.
Tracking is poor and no one is checking up on those in the system, sources said. A sailor can miss their follow-up examinations, and those rescheduled appointments can simply result in extending them on LIMDU.
“There is no adequate tracking mechanism with any punitive punch to it so as to ensure a sailor does the required things, on time, in order to get themselves put on LIMDU and taken off LIMDU in a timely fashion,” the source said.
What’s worse, some shore commands look the other way because they depend on LIMDU sailors to augment their work force, which have been cut substantially over the past decade.
“You look at major shore commands these days and limited duty people are critical to those commands being able to function,” said the personnel source. “Commands are not really willing to heavily dig into a sailor’s status for fear of losing that person back to the fleet.”