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Medical evacuations in Iraq war hit 18,000

By MARK BENJAMIN, United Press International   |   March 31, 2004 at 3:03 PM
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WASHINGTON, March 31 (UPI) -- In the first year of war in Iraq, the military has made 18,004 medical evacuations during Operation Iraqi Freedom, the Pentagon's top health official told Congress Tuesday.

The new data, through March 13, is nearly two-thirds higher than the 11,200 evacuations through Feb. 5 cited just last month to Congress by the same official, William Winkenwerder Jr., assistant secretary of defense for health affairs.

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In both cases, Winkenwerder described the evacuations as "total evacuations out of theater," and he said both times that the majority of evacuations represented routine medical treatment and not life-threatening injuries.

"As of March 13, 2004, data from the Transportation Command shows 18,004 total evacuations out of theater," Winkenwerder said Tuesday.

"As of February 5, 2004, data from the Transportation Command shows 11,200 total evacuations out of theater," he told a separate House panel Feb. 25.

A spokesman for Winkenwerder, James Turner, said the latest figure represents multiple evacuations for single patients -- including moving some soldiers back into theater. He said the 18,004 evacuations was for 11,700 patients.

Turner did not return e-mails or phone calls Tuesday and Wednesday asking for elaboration.

Winkenwerder appeared Tuesday before a House Government Reform panel with four Army Reserve and National Guard soldiers. Those soldiers offered a litany of complaints about poor health care for reserve and guard troops -- problems they said have been widespread during the war on terror, particularly on return to the United States.

Soldiers described being deployed to war with serious medical conditions and then getting poor and erratic health care upon return -- including months-long waits for doctors, surgeries or treatments. United Press International first reported that problem last October.

Two soldiers said better access to mental health services might have prevented two suicide attempts at two separate bases, and asserted that soldiers are sometimes prescribed powerful drugs by military health professionals in place of medical care. The soldiers also described widespread concern about being put out of the military without fair compensation for wounds and illnesses they received during service.

"Is it a question of incompetent medical care or a question of a well-organized government system that achieves just what it is supposed to achieve?" Retired Army Reserve First Sgt. Gerry Mosley, who served in Iraq, asked the panel.

"Use people, strip them of all human dignity, disrespect them, wear them down, and be pleased when soldiers no longer have the physical and mental capacities to continue to fight to have the same rights and respect as those American citizens for whom we have fought to preserve those entitlements."

Mosley said that after returning from Iraq last summer, he has had to drive 195 miles each way at his own expense to see a specialist. He said the Army put him out of service without compensating him for a neck injury or vertigo apparently triggered from mortar explosions. He can no longer work his civilian job. Since being put out of the Army, he has been diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease.

The wives of two soldiers also testified. Laura Ramsey, wife of Florida Army National Guard Spc. John A. Ramsey, said through tears that she did not want her husband to serve in the guard anymore, after fighting for nine months to get surgery on his shoulders that were injured in Iraq. "Not after the nine months of hell that we have been through," Ramsey said.

Pentagon health officials described a series of steps they are taking to better screen soldiers for health problems before and after deploying for combat. They also have taken steps to ease the strain at major bases -- including a new policy to send some soldiers back home for treatment near their families after 25 days if they are unfit for duty after showing up for service.

While they wait, the Pentagon has set new standards to help ensure that living conditions are appropriate for sick, injured or ill troops.

Pentagon health officials mostly have emphasized swift and professional care for the acutely wounded by combat in Iraq.

"During Operation Iraqi Freedom, we used far-forward surgical and medical teams and technologies to care for casualties within minutes of injury," Winkenwerder told Congress last month. "Based on the current analysis, 98 percent of those wounded who, in fact, reached medical treatment survived their injuries."

But Pentagon data and interviews with soldiers at six bases in the United States and Europe show combat wounds represent a minority of casualties during wartime. The Pentagon "Operation Iraqi Freedom U.S. Casualty Update" on Tuesday listed a total of 2,998 soldiers wounded in action, in comparison to the 18,004 medical evacuations described by Winkenwerder.

The Pentagon defines a casualty as "any person who is lost to the organization by having been declared dead, duty status-whereabouts unknown, missing, ill, or injured."

More mundane wartime injures seem more prevalent: back and neck injuries, torn knees and elbows, heart and lung problems and mental problems like post-traumatic stress disorder that may not be diagnosed for months after returning from combat.

Soldiers say acute care for the wounded at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany and at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., is excellent. But ill and injured troops -- particularly National Guard and Army Reserve soldiers -- sprinkled across the United States describe widespread concern for medical care and benefits described by the panel Tuesday. Some are in "medical hold" at U.S. bases while they wait for treatment.

"I have spoken probably with hundreds of soldiers since I was placed in med hold," Spc. Timothi M. McMichael told the panel Tuesday. He is on medical hold at Fort Knox, Ky. "I can only say that the uniform consensus is one of frustration, disappointment and anger. I have had soldiers with 15, 20, even 25 years in the military tell me they are disgusted," McMichael said. "The Army cannot afford to lose the number of senior non-commissioned officers it is losing every day."

In addition to the new policies, Winkenwerder said the Pentagon is racing to do better for these troops, as well as those wounded in combat. "I believe we are doing better. I really do," he told Congress Tuesday. "We understand. We appreciate that there are some issues that need to be addressed. We are aggressively addressing them."

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