WASHINGTON, Nov. 7 (UPI) -- Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., is co-chair of the Senate National Guard Caucus with Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy. Thursday, Bond took to the Senate floor to outline problems faced by sick and injured National Guard and Reserve soldiers while on "medical hold" at Army bases. Many of those soldiers served in Iraq.
UPI first reported Oct. 17 that more than 600 soldiers, mostly from the National Guard and Army Reserve, were waiting weeks or months for doctors at Fort Stewart, many in squalid cement barracks with no air conditioning or running water. UPI also reported that more than 400 soldiers faced long waits for care at Fort Knox, Ky.
Here are excerpts from an interview with Bond Wednesday in his Capitol Hill office by UPI Investigations Editor Mark Benjamin.
Bond: (Acting Secretary of the Army) Les Brownlee has said to me, "We've got to do something about this." He went down there I guess a week after you went down there. He has committed to moving in more clinicians and establish minimum standards for soldiers, such as housing standards. They will be transferring some soldiers to other facilities for medical care. We also talked with (Lt. Gen. H. Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau) about that.
Pat Leahy and I have gotten off a letter to (the General Accounting Office) to find out if there are additional problems. We've asked them to take a look at the other facilities and see how widespread this is.
Now after Fort Stewart, (staffer James Pitchford) went to Fort Knox and Fort Campbell. Now we will be going out to Fort Bragg and Fort Lewis, Wash. They will be going out next month (to Fort Lewis).
UPI: How did this happen?
Bond: A couple of things. Number one, some of the soldiers who were called up, say at Fort Stewart, were not fit for duty, so they had to be put on medical hold. That was about a third of the people there. And then they had so many people going out and coming in that they just did not have the medical staff of doctors and clinicians. They clearly did not have the facilities or housing.
Brownlee has said he would put up some prefab facilities so that they would at least have indoor plumbing and someplace clean to bathe. And we are pushing for the Guard and Reserve to get medical people in these facilities and have people checked out before they go in, so if they are not medically qualified then they do not report.
Also, we are suggesting that for these Guard and Reserve soldiers, if they are not getting medical care, then send then someplace near their home. Get them back to a place where they can be near their homes and get the care they need.
UPI: Is this somebody's fault? It seems like a situation where by doing the math, somebody might have seen this coming?
Bond: I don't think we have gotten to the bottom of that yet.
UPI: What should Congress do?
Bond: Well, the first thing we need to do is find out what they need. Most of the steps being taken are being taken by the Army. We have said, "Whatever it is you need, please let us know."
(Bond and his staff discussed putting money in a supplemental appropriations bill, but there was not enough time during this session of Congress.)
We are going to follow up to make sure improvements happen. At this juncture, they have not said that they need more resources or they don't have the authority they need. If they do, we will go to work on that as soon as we get back (from recess). At this point, at least to our knowledge, that is not a problem."
UPI: Will Congress hold hearings on this issue?
Bond: Well, we have done the staff work along with Sen. Leahy. I am sure that the authorizing committees and the Appropriations Committees will be raising that in oversight. I hope by the time we get around to those hearings early next year they will have this situation fixed. (Bond's staff said the Senate Armed Services Committee was set to hold a hearing in the next few weeks.)
UPI: National Guard and Army Reserve soldiers told me they were not getting treated as well as regular Army soldiers. Is that true?
Bond: We were not able to verify that in the time we had. (Bond has asked the General Accounting Office to investigate this issue.)
UPI: Is there anything about the nature of the illnesses, sicknesses, injuries or wounds that struck you?
Bond: No. We have not gotten into that yet.
UPI: Are you satisfied that the Army is going to do everything they say they are going to do to fix this?
Bond: I'm from the Show Me State. And I appreciate all the kind words they have said. I've worked with Les Brownlee for a long time. And 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. That is what we are going to do.
UPI: The Army is saying there is a new policy to improve the way medical hold works. Do you know anything about it?
Bond: I think they are going to make sure they get their medical conditions checked before they deploy.
(Pitchford: Yes, they'll have 28 days. Within 28 days of being activated, if they find that they have a pre-existing condition that precludes them from deploying, then they will be sent back to their home units and deactivated.)
Bond: And hopefully, we'll get Tricare (health insurance) for those who do not have health insurance."