June 11, 2008 – About two-thirds of the soldiers at three Army bases who had “significant” physical problems were deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan anyway, according to a U.S. Government Accountability Office survey released Tuesday.
The GAO also reported that documents assessing soldiers’ physical fitness were missing from hundreds of the medical records it reviewed, and that some soldiers with serious medical conditions did not get required evaluations before they were sent to war.
“I think the message of the report is clear. The Army is not following its own rules. It’s a problem,” said Brenda Farrell, the report’s author.
The report was delivered to the House Armed Services Committee, which had asked two questions:
Was the Army adhering to its own rules concerning deployments of soldiers with medical limitations? Was the Army assigning soldiers with medical conditions to suitable jobs?
The GAO was unable to answer the second question, partly because it received a limited response from soldiers it tried to survey. The responses it did get “suggest that both soldiers and commanders believe soldiers are generally assigned to duties that accommodated their medical conditions,” it reported.
Farrell said the GAO did not find widespread evidence that officers were revising medical reports to deploy injured soldiers. It did find poor management of records critical to deployment decisions. In a survey of 685 soldiers’ medical records, 213 physical profiles — documents describing a soldier’s fitness — were missing.
House Armed Services Committee chairman Ike Skelton said he was concerned that some medically unfit soldiers are being sent to war.
“The GAO report confirms that some soldiers have fallen through the cracks,” he said. “. . . Readiness requirements cannot be met by deploying injured or ill service members.”
The Army concurred with three GAO recommendations: to ensure soldiers with significant medical limitations are evaluated properly before deploying; to improve its record-keeping; and to provide an independent ombudsman for soldiers and their families.
“The GAO looked at a small fraction of the Army’s present forces from three Army posts,” spokesman Paul Boyce said. “Many of their findings and three recommendations already have been addressed in the past year with changes to our system.”
The GAO survey was based on a random sample of soldiers preparing to deploy from Fort Benning and Fort Stewart in Georgia and Fort Drum in New York in 2006 and 2007.
The GAO estimated that 86 percent of the 685 soldiers sampled did not have any serious physical limitations. But “of the estimated 14 percent who had such medical conditions, approximately two-thirds were deployed,” the report said.
It also found that 6 percent of the deployed soldiers had permanent medical conditions, and nearly half of those “did not receive needed (medical) board evaluations.”
Those conditions included herniated discs and back pain, chronic knee pain, Type 2 diabetes, and mild asthma.
The GAO report did not examine any deployments from Fort Carson, one of several bases where media reports suggested the Army was using injured soldiers to meet extended combat demands in Iraq.
In January, The Denver Post reported that the surgeon for Fort Carson’s 3rd Brigade Combat Team acknowledged in an e-mail that “borderline soldiers” were being sent to war because “we have been having issues reaching deployable strength.”