The latest snafu from the War Department: we’re sending soldiers to Iraq who are unfit for combat. From Salon:
“This is not right,” said Master Sgt. Ronald Jenkins, who has been ordered to Iraq even though he has a spine problem that doctors say would be damaged further by heavy Army protective gear. “This whole thing is about taking care of soldiers,” he said angrily. “If you are fit to fight you are fit to fight. If you are not fit to fight, then you are not fit to fight.”
As the military scrambles to pour more soldiers into Iraq, a unit of the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division at Fort Benning, Ga., is deploying troops with serious injuries and other medical problems, including GIs who doctors have said are medically unfit for battle. Some are too injured to wear their body armor, according to medical records.
On Feb. 15, Master Sgt. Jenkins and 74 other soldiers with medical conditions from the 3rd Division’s 3rd Brigade were summoned to a meeting with the division surgeon and brigade surgeon. These are the men responsible for handling each soldier’s “physical profile,” an Army document that lists for commanders an injured soldier’s physical limitations because of medical problems — from being unable to fire a weapon to the inability to move and dive in three-to-five-second increments to avoid enemy fire. Jenkins and other soldiers claim that the division and brigade surgeons summarily downgraded soldiers’ profiles, without even a medical exam, in order to deploy them to Iraq…
That is what worries Steve Robinson, director of veterans affairs at Veterans for America, who has long been concerned that the military was pressing injured troops into Iraq. “Did they send anybody down range that cannot wear a helmet, that cannot wear body armor?” Robinson asked rhetorically. “Well that is wrong. It is a war zone.” Robinson thinks that the possibility that physical profiles may have been altered improperly has the makings of a scandal. “My concerns are that this needs serious investigation. You cannot just look at somebody and tell that they were fit,” he said. “It smacks of an overstretched military that is in crisis mode to get people onto the battlefield.”
Eight soldiers who were at the Feb. 15 meeting say they were summoned to the troop medical clinic at 6:30 in the morning and lined up to meet with division surgeon Lt. Col. George Appenzeller, who had arrived from Fort Stewart, Ga., and Capt. Aaron K. Starbuck, brigade surgeon at Fort Benning. The soldiers described having a cursory discussion of their profiles, with no physical exam or extensive review of medical files. They say Appenzeller and Starbuck seemed focused on downplaying their physical problems. “This guy was changing people’s profiles left and right,” said a captain who injured his back during his last tour in Iraq and was ordered to Iraq after the Feb. 15 review.
And let’s meet some of the ‘fit for duty’ soldiers:
Master Sgt. Jenkins, 42, has a degenerative spine problem and a long scar down the back of his neck where three of his vertebrae were fused during surgery. He takes a cornucopia of potent pain pills. His medical records say he is “at significantly increased risk of re-injury during deployment where he will be wearing Kevlar, body armor and traveling through rough terrain.” Late last year, those medical records show, a doctor recommended that Jenkins be referred to an Army board that handles retirements when injuries are permanent and severe.
A copy of Jenkins’ profile written after that Feb. 15 meeting and signed by Capt. Starbuck, the brigade surgeon, shows a healthier soldier than the profile of Jenkins written by another doctor just late last year, though Jenkins says his condition is unchanged. Other soldiers’ documents show the same pattern.
One female soldier with psychiatric issues and a spine problem has been in the Army for nearly 20 years. “My [health] is deteriorating,” she said over dinner at a restaurant near Fort Benning. “My spine is separating. I can’t carry gear.” Her medical records include the note “unable to deploy overseas.” Her status was also reviewed on Feb. 15. And she has been ordered to Iraq this week.
The captain interviewed by Salon also requested anonymity because he fears retribution. He suffered a back injury during a previous deployment to Iraq as an infantry platoon leader. A Humvee accident “corkscrewed my spine,” he explained. Like the female soldier, he is unable to wear his protective gear, and like her he too was ordered to Iraq after his meeting with the division surgeon and brigade surgeon on Feb. 15. He is still at Fort Benning and is fighting the decision to send him to Baghdad. “It is a numbers issue with this whole troop surge,” he claimed. “They are just trying to get those numbers.”
Another soldier contacted Salon by telephone last week expressed considerable anxiety, in a frightened tone, about deploying to Iraq in her current condition. (She also wanted to remain anonymous, fearing retribution.) An incident during training several years ago injured her back, forcing doctors to remove part of her fractured coccyx. She suffers from degenerative disk disease and has two ruptured disks and a bulging disk in her back. While she said she loves the Army and would like to deploy after back surgery, her current injuries would limit her ability to wear her full protective gear. She deployed to Iraq last week, the day after calling Salon.
Her husband, who has served three combat tours in the infantry in Afghanistan and Iraq, said he is worried sick because his wife’s protective vest alone exceeds the maximum amount she is allowed to lift. “I have been over there three times. I know what it is like,” he told me during lunch at a restaurant here. He predicted that by deploying people like his wife, the brigade leaders are “going to get somebody killed over there.” He said there is “no way” Grigsby is going to keep all of the injured soldiers in safe jobs. “All of these people that deploy with these profiles, they are scared,” he said. He railed at the command: “They are saying they don’t care about your health. This is pathetic. It is bad.”
His wife’s physical profile was among those reevaluated on Feb. 15. A copy of her profile from late last year showed her health problems were so severe they “prevent deployment” and recommended she be medically retired from the Army. Her profile at that time showed she was unable to wear a protective mask and chemical defense equipment, and had limitations on doing pushups, walking, biking and swimming. It said she can only carry 15 pounds.
Though she says that her condition has not changed since then, almost all of those findings were reversed in a copy of her physical profile dated Feb. 15. The new profile says nothing about a medical retirement, but suggests that she limit wearing a helmet to “one hour at a time.”
This isn’t ‘service’, this is slaughter.