Better Medical Screening Sought For Maine National Guard Sent To Iraq and Afghanistan Wars

Boston Globe

AUGUSTA, Maine –Barbara Damon-Day, mother of a Maine Army National Guard captain who died of unexplained causes last June while serving in Bagram, Afghanistan, is now on a mission of her own.

Carrying a thick, maroon notebook filled with information about soldiers’ health issues — and pictures of her son Capt. Patrick Damon — Damon-Day has been working the State House halls to line up support for legislation inspired by her son’s mysterious death last June.

The bill would create a commission to improve health screening before Guard personnel are deployed. Damon-Day doesn’t have much more lobbying to do in Augusta, where her bill has 155 co-sponsors in the 186-member Legislature, not to mention support of Gov. John Baldacci.

Now, Damon-Day is looking at the legislation as a national model. Her hopes may be well-founded, because she was able to make her case personally to President Bush while he visited the family’s summer home in Kennebunkport last August.

The president, who had just met with Damon’s widow, “was in tears,” Damon-Day recalled. “He hugged me.”

“I am uplifted by the support I’ve received on this,” the 64-year-old Damon-Day said after chatting recently in the House chamber with a couple of lawmakers. “I have not met a single soul who was not supportive. Lobbyists have even helped me.”

Damon-Day, of Newcastle, acknowledged that her legislation may have gotten a bump from the fact that her son was well-known and popular in the State House, where he had served as chief of staff for a former House speaker before moving on to the Public Utilities Commission as administrative director.

But she is confident that the law she envisions will help someone else who might not have drawn such an outpouring of attention as Damon, who was known for his ability to boil down complex issues, to work long hours and, as Baldacci said, as someone who “built a legacy of looking out for the people who couldn’t look out for themselves.”

Damon, 41, who lived in Falmouth and had two young children, had taken leave from the PUC when he was deployed to Afghanistan in January 2006 with the Maine Guard’s 240th Engineer Group. While he didn’t agree with the war, he believed he had to live up to his military commitment.

Damon collapsed on his bunk after a recreational run, his wife, Hildi Halley, said at the time. News reports said Damon, who had no known history of heart problems, died of an apparent heart attack.

“They do not know why he died,” Damon-Day said, adding that the Vaccine Healthcare Center at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington is still looking at the death as possibly vaccine-related. While the military lists the death as “sudden unexpected,” Damon-Day believes it was “prolonged and preventable.”

She suspects it could have something to do with the extensive series of vaccinations Damon, like other soldiers, had to undergo before deployment. Damon-Day questioned whether, for example, one immunization could have an effect on another.

Damon-Day pointed to a picture of her son in her notebook showing “mumps-like swelling,” but says his post-mortem examination didn’t indicate a reason for puffiness.

“In the military, you are vaccinated, literally, to death,” she said. “But when you are in the military, you have no right to say no.”

Damon-Day said she started her legislative mission with a broad idea, and that’s led to countless hours of research — and much frustration when answers to her queries to the military weren’t satisfactory. “I take one step, and that will lead to the next step, and that will lead to the next,” she said.

The bill that was submitted by Baldacci seeks to create a nine-member commission that would review all preventative health treatment practices and protocols, vaccinations and other medications administered to members of the Maine National Guard.

Working with the state Department of Defense and Veterans’ Services and the Maine Center for Disease Control, the commission would also propose recommendations for safer health-care practices and medications to the U.S. military.

In addition, the panel would help to assist families with members who have died or been wounded while in the National Guard. The commission must include at least one physician, a pharmacist, a veteran who has served in a war zone, a person with a military-related disability and a psychologist.

Maine CDC Director Dora Anne Mills said the legislation addresses changes that have occurred since the war on terror began. Previously, National Guard soldiers tended to be younger and usually served in domestic assignments. Now, soldiers are older and are serving overseas.

But their health protocols haven’t kept pace with the changed demographics, said Mills, who believes the proposed commission will address “a major public health issue.”

Others share her view.

“You’ve hit a home run with this one,” Gary Lawyerson of the Maine Veterans Coordinating Committee told Damon-Day during a news conference Friday to announce the legislation.

“There’s nothing that prevents Maine from having a higher standard than the federal military,” said Damon-Day. “If this passes, I really believe we could get something changed in Washington, and it would not be something (President) Bush would veto.”

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