January 29, 2008 – Army Staff Sgt. Jack Auble was in the process of being medically discharged after serving nearly 20 years in the military when he was sent to Baghdad last year.
Auble, 43, suffers from severe osteoporosis of the spine, bulging discs and compression fractures.
Auble had a “permanent” profile, meaning his condition would not improve, and because of his limitations, he did not meet the Army’s retention standards.
Nevertheless, Auble’s medical paperwork was changed. He received a new, “temporary” status, used to indicate his condition would improve, and he was redeployed. He said he was not re-examined by a medical professional at Fort Drum, N.Y., before receiving a new profile.
Several soldiers from Fort Carson also claim that their “temporary” profiles were downgraded to give them fewer restrictions so they could be deployed.
Regardless of the profile, a commander can send a soldier to war if there is a job the person can do within the limitations set by doctors, and if there is appropriate medical care in the theater of operations.
Army regulations allow the changing of profiles after a medical examination, but the question is, are all procedures being followed?
The Government Accountability Office began an investigation into the problem last summer; a report is expected at the end of February.
At the request of the House Armed Services Committee, investigators focused on cases of soldiers whose medical profiles had been changed shortly before their return to Iraq. Preliminary findings are now being discussed with military officials.
GAO investigators have identified cases of unfit soldiers deployed from Fort Drum and from Fort Stewart and Fort Benning in Georgia, said Brenda Farrell, director of defense capabilities and management investigations for the GAO.
The Fort Carson soldiers, who said they did not visit a medical professional before their profiles changed, declined to be named because they said they feared retribution.
Col. James Terrio, Fort Carson’s deputy commander of clinical services, said he knew of no profiles that were changed at the post without a soldier seeing a medical professional.
“I could write a profile for a soldier, say he’s got back pain or something like that. That brigade surgeon could come through and either re-evaluate, talk to the soldier — maybe one of the limitations I wrote was too restrictive — and change that profile,” Terrio said. He said only health-care providers change profiles.
Some cite push to meet goals
But some say the military is stretched so thin and under pressure to meet deployment goals that it sends into war zones injured soldiers who wouldn’t be there otherwise.
E-mails from the brigade surgeon in Fort Carson’s 3rd Brigade Combat Team, which sent 3,500 to 3,700 soldiers to war beginning late last year, said: “We have been having issues with reaching deployable strength, and thus have been taking along some borderline soldiers who we would otherwise have left behind for continued treatment.”
Army officials deny they are under pressure to fill combat slots.
“It has been a long-standing policy of the Army to carefully prioritize personnel assignments to those units deploying to combat zones,” according to Army spokesman Paul Boyce.
Commanders ultimately have the final say about who is deployed.
But in some cases, sending injured soldiers or those with medical conditions back to the battle zone may not benefit the effort.
In January 2007, for instance, Auble went to work in the operations center, a room full of computers where the battlefield is monitored, at Camp Striker in Baghdad, but he needed narcotics to dull excruciating pain.
“I took Percocet, and I also took Vicodin,” Auble said. “The guy who worked next to me . . . he noticed consistent grogginess, dozing off. I wouldn’t catch something that he would say and lose track of the battle and all of that stuff.”
Three months later, Auble, with the 10th Mountain Division out of Fort Drum, was medically evacuated from the war zone after he was sent to a doctor in the theater. He has since been permanently disabled retired.
A Fort Carson soldier with a shoulder injury, who asked not to be identified, said his profile was rewritten days before he deployed.
He said his original profile stated he was not permitted to carry a weapon or a rucksack or wear body armor.
His profile was changed to say that he could wear body armor and could do “combat missions fully geared up.” He said it didn’t “make any sense because my shoulder, obviously, still wasn’t healed.” He has since returned to the U.S.
Master Sgt. Denny Nelson, who has 19 years in the Army, was sent to the Middle East with a serious foot injury. His profile prohibited him from running, jumping and carrying more than 20 pounds. The Army assigned him to a job in Kuwait, but a medical professional there said he should never have been redeployed, and Nelson returned to Fort Carson.
“It’s not about the violation of a profile, it’s about the violation of a soldier’s safety and well being,” Nelson said. “The issue is, you’ve got soldiers that can’t put on their protective gear. Are they in light-duty jobs? Yes. But if they get mortared, they’re dead.”
Gen. Charles Campbell, commander of Army Forces Command, said the Army has “competent, seasoned, mature and compassionate brigade commanders making decisions with respect to deploying personnel. They are engaged, thoughtful and deliberate. I have confidence that the decisions they make consider the interests of the soldier and the unit.”
Fort Carson has 440 people in the medical evaluation board system, which reflects the number of people on post with permanent profiles. Fort Carson estimates it has 815 soldiers on post with “temporary” profiles.
“Most people think that if you go to war, you’re running around with all your body armor on, but in Kuwait, it’s kind of like being here except it’s a lot hotter and there’s a lot of sand. The threat there is very low,” Terrio said. “There are jobs where people just sit and answer their phone.”
Fort Carson sent 79 injured soldiers with the 3rd Brigade Combat Team to the Middle East in November and December to perform light-duty jobs. Most were sent to Iraq. Six of them have since returned.
GIs’ health a longtime issue
Dr. Stephen Xenakis, a retired Army brigadier general who served 28 years as an Army doctor, said balancing the needs of the Army with the health of soldiers is “always an issue you have to keep an eye on. You hear stories of this going all the way back to World War II. Years ago, there was a New England Journal article and then Physicians for Human Rights wrote a pamphlet on what they call dual loyalty — the conflict that military physicians are in with respect to the professional loyalty they’re supposed to have to the patients as well as the loyalty they have as soldiers to the service. These kind of situations demonstrate that conflict.”
Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow at a research group called the Center for American Progress who worked as an assistant secretary of defense under President Reagan, said sending injured soldiers to perform light-duty jobs is another sign of the pressure the Army is under.
“They are in a no-win position,” Korb said. “The Army is not big enough to support the surge, deal with Afghanistan and give people a minimum amount of time at home.”
The Army announced last week that it is considering cutting the length of tours from 15 months to 12 months because of stress on soldiers.
Also this past week, the National Priorities Project, a research group that analyzes federal data, released a report that showed fewer Army recruits have a high school diploma, a trend that has continued since the beginning of the war in Iraq. Soldiers are required to have a high school diploma or an equivalent.
The report said that nearly 71 percent of the Army’s 67,398 recruits last year had a high school education, while in 2005, 83.5 percent of recruits had at least a high school education.
Korb said more and more recruits are scoring below average on the armed-forces qualification test, and last year, the Army gave 8,000 “moral waivers” to recruits — 80 percent to recruits who committed misdemeanors and 20 percent for felonies, he said. Those with criminal records are not allowed into the service without such a waiver.
Korb said he thinks that after the U.S. withdraws from Iraq, it will take a decade for the Army to rebuild.