Doctors, dollars rushed to Fort Stewart

By MARK BENJAMIN, UPI Investigations Editor  |  Oct. 20, 2003 at 9:39 PM
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WASHINGTON, Oct. 20 (UPI) -- The Army said Monday it is sending doctors to Fort Stewart, Ga., to help hundreds of sick and injured soldiers, including Iraq veterans, who say they are waiting weeks and months for proper medical help.

Many of the Army Reserve and National Guard personnel in "medical hold" at the base are living in steamy cement training barracks that they say are unacceptable for sick and injured soldiers.

The Army said in its statement that it would spend money to improve those living conditions and is dispatching a team to look into the soldiers' complaints.

"The Army does acknowledge that medical hold challenges exist -- across the Army as well as Fort Stewart," according to the statement. The Army "is absolutely committed to taking care of our people."

At the Pentagon, Army Public Affairs Specialist Steven Stover said officials would try to use findings about the problems at Fort Stewart to improve conditions in the future.

"Is this happening? Yes, it is," said Stover. "What we learn from this incident is going to help the Army when we have other major units returning" from Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Stover said Director of the Army Staff Lt. Gen. James L. Lovelace Jr. dispatched the "assessment team" after a series of meetings among high-level Army officials on Friday, Saturday and Monday.

On Friday, United Press International reported that the soldiers were languishing in hot cement barracks here while they wait -- sometimes for months -- to see doctors. They have to walk to a nearby latrine.

Steve Robinson, a veterans advocate with the National Gulf War Resource Center who visited the barracks last week, said Monday he was glad the Army acted.

"The NGWRC is pleased that the Army will address the soldiers' concerns," Robinson said. "As a former non-commissioned officer who retired after 20 years of faithful service, I was disturbed by the reports from the soldiers in medical hold."

Missouri Republican Sen. Kit Bond, who heads a key veterans' committee, is set to dispatch staff to Fort Stewart on Tuesday, said his spokeswoman, Shana Stribling.

Several of the National Guard and Army Reserve soldiers said the way they are being treated makes them believe the Army is trying push them out with reduced benefits for their ailments. They also said that regular active duty personnel are getting far better treatment.

While soldiers are on hold, the Army decides how sick or disabled they are and what benefits -- if any -- they should get as a result. One document shown to UPI stated that no more doctor appointments were available from Oct. 14 through Nov. 11 -- Veterans Day.

The soldiers estimate that around 40 percent of the nearly 600 personnel in medical hold were deployed to Iraq. Of those who went, many described clusters of strange ailments, like heart and lung problems, among previously healthy troops. They said the Army has tried to refuse them benefits, claiming the injuries and illnesses were due to a "pre-existing condition," prior to military service, a charge the Army denied.

The Army said Monday it has "shifted professional staff from regional medical facilities to Fort Stewart to help reduce the backlog where appropriate."

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