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Senator: We'll hold Army accountable

By MARK BENJAMIN, Investigations Editor   |   Nov. 7, 2003 at 12:46 PM   |   Comments

WASHINGTON, Nov. 6 (UPI) -- A key senator is vowing to make sure the Army helps hundreds of sick and injured soldiers waiting weeks and sometimes months to see doctors at U.S. Army bases. Many of those soldiers served in Iraq.

Missouri Republican Sen. Kit Bond told United Press International that Acting Secretary of the Army Les Brownlee has given his word that the Army will help the soldiers, stuck in what the Army calls "medical hold" at places like Fort Stewart, Ga.

"I am from the Show Me State, and I appreciate all the kind words they have said," Bond said in an interview in his office Wednesday.

"I've worked with Les Brownlee for a long time," Bond said. "When I have called on him for other things and he has said he is going to do it, then he is going to do it."

"We will be very interested in seeing that this gets done," said Bond.

The problems with medical care were first reported by UPI on Oct. 17.

Bond and Sen. Patrick Leahy D-Vt., co-chairs of the Senate National Guard Caucus, Thursday asked the investigative arm of Congress, the General Accounting Office, to find out whether soldiers are suffering the same fate at bases across the country.

The House and Senate Armed Services committees also plan to hold hearings on the issue.

"I regret very much, as all of us do, that the situation occurred," Bond said on the Senate floor Thursday.

Also on Thursday, 128 Democrats wrote Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld asking for an investigation into the situation they called "unconscionable."

The Army said Thursday it is moving fast.

"The Army is aggressively seeking ways to improve the conditions for the soldiers on medical hold," said Army spokesman Major Steve Stover.

Stover said the Army will set a new standard that soldiers get referrals to medical specialists within two weeks. New Army policy also will ensure that soldiers who are too sick to deploy in the first place are sent back to their home units, instead of languishing on medical hold at bases far from home for months at a time.

Last month, UPI reported that more than 600 soldiers, mostly from the National Guard and Army Reserve, were waiting for doctors at Fort Stewart. Many of the soldiers have been kept in concrete barracks with no running water or air conditioning. UPI also reported that more than 400 soldiers were waiting weeks and months for doctors at Fort Knox, Ky.

Bond and Leahy have released a report documenting the "unacceptable" situation at Fort Stewart and calling for action. That report said some soldiers had been waiting at Fort Stewart for as much as 10 months.

Military officials said they have added to the medical staff at the base, improved housing conditions and moved some soldiers to other bases to receive immediate care.

Bond told UPI Wednesday he plans to dispatch investigators to Fort Bragg, N.C., and Fort Lewis, Wash., to check for problems.

The Army has dispatched teams to check conditions at 14 posts across the country. Brig. Gen. Richard Ursome said Monday that the Army may be facing similar challenges throughout the Army as the medical system is overwhelmed by National Guard and Army Reserve troops returning from Operation Iraqi Freedom.

"It's a problem that's getting solved," Ursome said in an Army News Service report.

Investigators from the Senate have said that the Army medical system was simply overloaded by the number of sick, wounded or injured soldiers returning from operation Iraqi freedom. This was exacerbated by soldiers kept at Army bases who were too sick to deploy in the first place.

"They had so many people going out and coming in that they just did not have the medical staff of doctors and clinicians," Bond said. "They clearly did not have the facilities or housing."

Bond said he still does not know why the Army did not plan better.

"I don't think we have gotten to the bottom of that yet," Bond said.

© 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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