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Army fixing medical failure exposed by UPI

By
MARK BENJAMIN, United Press International

WASHINGTON, Jan. 21 (UPI) -- With the biggest troop rotation since World War II under way, Pentagon officials told a House panel Wednesday they would do whatever it takes to avoid the mistakes that last year left sick and injured troops at U.S. bases waiting weeks and months for doctors. Many had served in Iraq.

The solutions include moving ill soldiers from steamy cement barracks without running water into nearby hotels, adding more doctors and setting aside $77 million to improve conditions.

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"We recognize that last fall, we temporarily lost sight of the situation," Daniel Denning, an assistant secretary of the Army, told the House Total Force Subcommittee Wednesday.

"It is likely that during this period of force rotations, patient loads at some installations may exceed local capacity," Denning said. "The Army has developed a series of options to handle this surge. The Army will be successful."

Army Surgeon General Lt. Gen. James B. Peake told the panel he "was not aware" last fall that soldiers were waiting for medical care at U.S. bases in substandard living conditions.

United Press International first reported last October that more than 1,000 National Guard and Army Reserve soldiers at Fort Stewart and Fort Knox, including hundreds who served in Iraq, were waiting weeks and months in "medical hold" to see doctors. At Fort Stewart in Georgia, many waited in hot concrete barracks with no air-conditioning or running water.

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Soldiers complained they were being treated like "second-class citizens" compared with active duty soldiers, and vowed to leave the Army after years of service.

"In October of last year a series of articles revealed that many mobilized Reserve and National Guard soldiers in a medical holdover status felt the Army was not treating them as equals to their active component counterparts," said Chairman John McHugh, R-N.Y. "The articles described substandard living conditions at two Army posts in particular -- Fort Stewart, Ga., and Fort Knox, Ky."

"Many of the ill and injured soldiers interviewed at these posts reported having to wait for long periods of time -- sometimes weeks or months -- before receiving the medical care they needed," said McHugh.

Sgt. Craig Allen LaChance, a soldier who was on medical hold at Fort Stewart, told the panel that it "took months to get appointments" with specialists while sick, injured and ill soldiers waited in what he said were substandard barracks. "We lived in deplorable conditions," LaChance said. "We were made to feel like we had failed the Army."

Col. Keith Armstrong, garrison commander at Fort Knox, told the committee "we were stretched pretty thin" last fall. Fort Stewart Garrison Commander Col. John M. Kidd said, "We recognized that we had some difficulty here. We recognized that we had a problem with medical hold."

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Both commanders said they had asked for help from the Army and both described it as slow in coming.

During the first four months of this year, between 200,000 and 250,000 soldiers, including 120,000 reservists, will be going to or returning from Operation Iraqi Freedom, according to the Pentagon.

The garrison commanders and Army officials described a flurry of initiatives that they said assure the medical hold problem does not occur again.

-- At problem bases like Fort Stewart, the Army opened a Troop Medical Clinic to provide additional health care by doctors, case managers and other professionals. Soldiers at Fort Knox have been moved out of the worst barracks. At Fort Stewart, many are in hotels as far as 50 miles away to keep them out of cement training barracks while ill.

-- The Army has implemented a 25-day rule so that Reserve or Guard troops who show up at bases to go to war and are sick are sent back home within 25 days. Part of the problem was that many soldiers showed up unfit for duty in the first place, further clogging health care facilities at mobilization sites like Fort Stewart and Fort Knox.

-- The Pentagon has set aside $77 million to improve medical hold problems.

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McHugh said Congress would be watching closely to make sure the Pentagon fixes the problems during the next, massive troop rotation. "I think we can reasonably anticipate what the challenges are going to be," he said.

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