The Pentagon's Achilles Heel
This past weekend, United Press International's Mark Benjamin -- assisted by Steven Robinson of the National Gulf War Resource Center, a veteran's advocacy group -- broke the story that hundreds of injured Iraq War veterans were stranded in dismal barracks at Ft. Stewart, Ga., while they were awaiting medical care.
"They're being treated like dogs," is how one officer who didn't want his name used put it, speaking to TomPaine.com before the UPI story broke. "There is not a smile on this sector of the post. I have never seen as many sad people in one place in all my life."
The situation described by this officer and by UPI was one where injured National Guard and Army Reserve soldiers were languishing while waiting for military doctors to fully diagnose their injuries and do the paperwork for future medical benefits. The veterans -- some with injuries that will become lifelong disabilities -- were living in large barracks with double bunk beds and no indoor plumbing. Soldiers who paid $10 day could get a smaller, shared room with air conditioning and a bathroom.
"I've been in [the military] for 30 ? years and never thought the Army would turn on its own like this," said First Sgt. Gerry Mosley, of the National Guard's 296th Transportation Company from Brookhaven, Miss. "I am not in a case by myself. They are telling you it's going to be four to six months if you're going through a medical evaluation."
The account given by Mosley and other soldiers at Ft. Stewart is at odds with the support-the-troops rhetoric from top Pentagon and White House officials. Yet it's part of a pattern of lapses in military health policies that have occurred during the course of the Iraq War.
In recent weeks, two separate congressional investigations by the General Accounting Office (GAO-04-158T and GAO-03-1171T) concluded the Army and Air Force largely ignored a 1997 law requiring all soldiers sent to war zones be given extensive pre- and post-deployment medical exams -- to avoid the unexplained medical problems that arose after the 1991 Persian Gulf War that became known as "Gulf War Syndrome."
Moreover, the months-long delays in getting medical care faced by the soldiers at Ft. Stewart are nearly identical to the delays faced by veterans of other wars as they seek care in the Veterans Administration health system. Fully funding the VA is a top priority of veterans' groups, who say the 2004 VA budget pending before Congress is under-funded by $1.8 billion.
"This is about what the administration says versus what they do," said Robinson, who is executive director of the National Gulf War Resource Center.
But following the publication of UPI's story on Friday, Oct. 17, Mosley said the senior officers at Ft. Stewart met with the soldiers quoted in the news account and then started making basic improvements to the living conditions. Over the weekend, partitions were put between toilets and bunk beds, he said. Mosley also was told more doctors will be brought in.
Robinson, who repeated the story on CNN on Monday, Oct. 20, is bringing congressional investigators to Ft. Stewart on Tuesday, Oct. 21.
The Bigger Picture
Whether the situation at Ft. Stewart is the norm or an anomaly at military bases housing soldiers injured in Iraq is not known. The Pentagon has not commented. Ft. Stewart is only one base where injured troops from Iraq have been sent, according to soldiers and veterans' activists contacted.
It's also hard to determine how many soldiers have been injured in Iraq because, again, the Pentagon has not fully disclosed those numbers. Another UPI report, on Oct. 3, said nearly 4,000 soldiers had been medically evacuated from Iraq for non-combat reasons, quoting the Army Surgeon General's office. Those numbers have not been updated.
Some soldiers say the military has been downplaying these statistics. Army Reserve Staff Sgt. Camilo Mejia of Miami, who was back in the states during the recent two-week furlough, said the military was short of manpower in Iraq and wasn't always sending injured troops to Kuwait or back to the states for medical care.
That was one factor contributing to low morale of troops in Iraq, he said, a trend that was confirmed in a mid-October poll conducted by Stars and Stripes, a government-published military newspaper.
Meanwhile, soldiers like Sgt. Mosley have been languishing at Ft. Stewart since last spring. Mosley, 48, served in the Army for three years and has been in the reserves for 27 years. He said he was injured when he jumped off a truck that came under Iraqi attack in the first hours of the war. He kept going and was further hurt after diving into a foxhole to avoid more Iraqi fire.
Before the war, Mosley said he could run two miles in 17 minutes. Today, he said he can barely walk or sleep for more than 45 minutes at a time. He got to Ft. Stewart on May 26 and was put in what's called "medical hold."
At first, he lived in a large cement barracks with no air conditioning, where he and 50 other injured soldiers slept in bunk beds. He said he's been paying $10 a day for an air-conditioned room he shares with two other men.
Mosley said his medical issues were still unresolved. He said he has waited for weeks to see specialists and doctors, but their diagnoses and resulting treatments have not helped. Mosley also said he's been pressured to sign papers to confirm those diagnoses, which could limit his future veteran's benefits. Mosley said he refused to do so.
Worse yet, Mosley said soldiers like him -- from the National Guard and Army Reserves -- weren't getting the same attention or treatment as soldiers from the fulltime active-duty military. He finds that double standard galling.
"When the Iraqis started coming in on us, when the bullets started flying, they didn't say I didn't mean to fire on you -- you're a reservist," he said. "We're being treated so differently from the active duty troops, it's not funny."
Mosley's story isn't unique. Sgt. Willie Buckles, with 28 years of service, was injured in the same Iraqi mortar attack as Mosley. "I came back on the fifth of May. I still don't know what my pain is," he said.
But Buckles has a good idea why he hasn't gotten the care he needs. "I don't believe they planned for it," he said. "They don't have enough doctors and facilities to take care of them." Buckles believes the Pentagon didn't plan for extensive casualties in Iraq. On the other hand, the Pentagon ignored the one law Congress passed after the military's mishandling of Gulf War Syndrome: a 1997 order (PL105-85) requiring detailed medical records for every soldier sent to war.
Two recent reports by Congress' General Accounting Office concluded the Army and Air Force didn't do that before the Iraq war. Several congressional staffers who work on the issue said they still don't know if the Pentagon was complying with medical records law, even as tens of thousands of new National Guard troops are being sent to Iraq.
Last spring, after coming under congressional criticism for not following the 1997 law, the Pentagon's point man on the issue, Under-Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs William Winkenwerder, announced the Pentagon would expand the questionnaire used by the military for post-deployment screening.
What's also notable about the lengthy delays faced by soldiers at Ft. Stewart is that they are approximately the same length as those faced by veterans of other wars in the VA health system. While the injured soldiers at Ft. Stewart are not yet in the VA system, veteran advocates note that the VA has been under-funded for years by the current administration, including its 2004 budget now before Congress.
"You used us. Now don't abuse us," was how Woody Powell of Veterans for Peace put it, summing up the attitude of veterans seeking better government health care.
Steven Rosenfeld is a senior editor for TomPaine.com.