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Sick soldiers wait for treatment

By MARK BENJAMIN, UPI Investigations Editor   |   Oct. 29, 2003 at 3:57 PM   |   Comments

FORT KNOX, Ky., Oct. 29 (UPI) -- More than 400 sick and injured soldiers, including some who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom, are stuck at Fort Knox, waiting weeks and sometimes months for medical treatment, a score of soldiers said in interviews.

The delays appear to have demolished morale -- many said they had lost faith in the Army and would not serve again -- and could jeopardize some soldiers' health, the soldiers said.

The Army Reserve and National Guard soldiers are in what the Army calls "medical hold," like roughly 600 soldiers under similar circumstances waiting for doctors at Fort Stewart, Ga.

The apparent lack of care at both locations raises the specter that Reserve and Guard soldiers, including many who returned from Iraq, could be languishing at locations across the country, according to Senate investigators.

Representatives from the office of Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., were at Fort Knox Wednesday looking into conditions at the post.

Following reports from Fort Stewart, Senate investigators said that the medical system at that post was overwhelmed and they were looking into whether the situation was Army-wide.

Army officials at the Pentagon said they are investigating that possibility. "We are absolutely taking a look at this across the Army and not just at Fort Stewart," Army spokesman Joe Burlas said Wednesday.

"I joined to serve my country," said Cpl. Waymond Boyd, 34. He served in Iraq with the National Guard's 1175 Transportation Company. He has been in medical hold since the end of July.

"It doesn't make any sense to go over there and risk your life and come back to this," Boyd said. "It ain't fair and it ain't right. I used to be patriotic." He has served the military for 15 years.

Boyd's knee and wrist injuries were severe enough that he was evacuated to Germany at the end of July and then sent to Fort Knox. His medical records show doctor appointments around four weeks apart. He said it took him almost two months to get a cast for his wrist, which is so weak he can't lift 5 pounds or play with his two children. He is taking painkilling drugs and walks with a cane with some difficulty.

Many soldiers at Fort Knox said their injuries and illnesses occurred in Iraq. Some said the rigors of war exacerbated health problems that probably should have prevented them from going in the first place.

Boyd's X-rays appear to show the damage to his wrist but also bone spurs in his feet that are noted in his medical record before being deployed, but the records say "no health problems noted" before he left.

"I don't think I was medically fit to go. But they said 'go.' That is my job," Boyd said.

Fort Knox Public Affairs Officer Connie Shaffery said, "Taking care of patients is our priority." Soldiers see specialists within 28 days, Shaffery said and Fort Knox officials hope to cut that time lag.

"I think that we would like for all the soldiers to get care as soon as possible," Shaffery said.

Shaffery said of the 422 soldiers on medical hold at Fort Knox, 369 did not deploy to Operation Iraqi Freedom because of their illnesses. Around two-thirds of the soldiers at Fort Stewart did serve in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Soldiers at Fort Knox describe strange clusters of heart problems and breathing problems, as did soldiers at Fort Stewart and other locations.

Command Sgt. Major Glen Talley, 57, is in the hospital at Fort Knox for heart problems, clotting blood and Graves' disease, a thyroid disorder. All of the problems became apparent after he went to war in April, he says. He is a reservist.

Talley said he was moved to Fort Knox on Oct. 16 and had not seen a doctor yet, only a physician's assistant. His next appointment with an endocrinologist was scheduled for Dec. 30.

"I don't mind serving my country," Talley said. "I just hate what they are doing to me now." Talley has served for 30 years. He was awarded two Purple Hearts in Vietnam.

Sgt. Buena Montgomery has breathing problems since serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom. She said she has been able to get to doctors but worries about many others who have not.

"The Army did not prepare for the proper medical care for the soldiers that they knew were going to come back from this war," Montgomery said. "Now the Army needs to step up to the plate and fix this problem."

In nearly two dozen interviews conducted over three days, soldiers also described substandard living conditions -- though they said conditions had improved recently.

A UPI photographer working on this story without first having cleared his presence with base public affairs officials was detained for several hours for questioning Tuesday and then released. He was told he would need an Army escort for any further visits to the base. He returned to the base accompanied by an Army escort on Wednesday.

This reporter also was admonished that he had to be accompanied by an Army public affairs escort when on base. The interviews had been conducted without the presence of an escort.

After returning from Iraq, some soldiers spent about eight weeks in Spartan, dilapidated World War II-era barracks with leaking roofs, animal infestations and no air conditioning in the Kentucky heat.

"I arrived here and was placed in the World War II barracks," one soldier wrote in an internal Fort Knox survey of the conditions. "On the 28th of August we moved out. On 30 Aug. the roof collapsed. Had we not moved, someone would be dead," that soldier wrote.

Shaffery said all of the soldiers have moved out of those barracks. "As soon as we were able to, we moved them out," Shaffery said. The barracks now stand empty and have been condemned.

Also like Fort Stewart, soldiers at Fort Knox claimed they are getting substandard treatment because they are in the National Guard or Army Reserve as opposed to regular Army. The Army has denied any discrepancies in treatment or housing.

"We have provided, are providing, and will continue to provide our soldiers -- active and Reserve component -- the best health care available," Army spokesman Maj. Steve Stover said Oct. 20. He said Army policy provides health care priority based on a "most critically ill" basis, without differentiation between active and our Reserve soldiers.

"Medical hold issues are not new and the Army has been working diligently to address them across the Army," Stover said.

"They are treating us like second-class citizens," said Spc. Brian Smith, who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom until Aug. 16 and said he is having trouble seeing doctors at Fort Knox. The Army evacuated him through Germany for stomach problems, among other things. "My brother wants to get in (the military). I am now discouraging him from doing it," Smith said.

"I have never been so disrespected in my military career," said Lt. Jullian Goodrum, who has been in the Army Reserve for 16 years. His health problems do not appear to be severe -- injured wrists -- but he said the medical situation at Fort Knox is bad. He said he waited a month for therapy. "I have never been so treated like dirt."

© 2003 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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