Army fears new logjams in treating GIs

By MARK BENJAMIN, Investigations Editor  |  Nov. 19, 2003 at 5:30 PM
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WASHINGTON, Nov. 19 (UPI) -- Top Army officials told U.S. senators Wednesday the Army is scrambling to find doctors and housing for thousands of troops who will return from Operation Iraqi Freedom early next year.

The Army is worried about a shortage similar to the logistical crunch that left more than 600 soldiers waiting weeks and sometimes months for medical care at Fort Stewart, Ga. Some sick and injured National Guard and Army Reserve soldiers at Fort Stewart stayed in concrete barracks with no running water and no air conditioning while they waited.

The situation was first reported in October by United Press International.

Acting Army Secretary Les Brownlee and Chief of Staff Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker said a massive rotation of several hundred thousand troops early next year could strain Army medicine and housing beyond capacity. Brownlee said between 200,000 and 250,000 soldiers, including 120,000 reservists, would be going to or returning from Operation Iraqi Freedom during the first four months of next year.

"This movement that we are going to do in the early months of next year is huge," Schoomaker told Hawaii Democrat Sen. Daniel Akaka. "This is going to be huge, and we are anticipating to be really challenged in this area that you are talking about right here."

Akaka had asked what the Army was doing "to ensure that the problems experienced at Fort Stewart ... are not repeated?"

Brownlee said the Army has set a standard that sick and injured soldiers must be in clean housing with climate control and running water. The Army is also giving soldiers access to civilian doctors and increasing military medical staff. The Army is also considering the construction of prefabricated structures to accommodate an influx of soldiers.

Brownlee said the problems at Fort Stewart occurred at other bases. "It was happening other places, too," he told Akaka.

But he also said the upcoming rotation could overwhelm current resources.

"To my knowledge, the Army has never had a rotation like this in the past," Brownlee said.

The Senate Armed Services Committee Wednesday held the hearing to discuss the shortage of medical care and poor housing apparent at Fort Stewart, as well as a host of apparent Army challenges ranging from a shortage of body armor, armored Humvees, and anti-missile technology for helicopters.

In October, UPI reported on long waits for medical care at Fort Stewart and Fort Knox, as well as squalid living conditions at Fort Stewart. The Army Reserve and National Guard soldiers had been placed on what the Army calls "medical hold" while they wait for doctors.

"There have been recent revelations about the availability of prompt health care and living conditions for those placed on medical hold, primarily members of the Reserve component, in preparation for deployment," Committee Chairman John Warner, R-Va., said in his opening statement. "The issue came to light in press reports of dissatisfaction and poor living conditions at Fort Stewart, Georgia," Warner told the Army officials. "So we look forward to listening to your report today."

Schoomaker told the panel during questions that the problem at Fort Stewart was exacerbated by unfit soldiers who could not deploy to Iraq whom the Army was treating -- as opposed to casualties from Iraq.

"If you look at the Fort Stewart example, less that 20 of all those -- and that's 600-and-something soldiers -- less than 20 were injured as a result of that deployment," Schoomaker told the Senate panel. "A lot of those soldiers never deployed, because they were determined to be medically unfit."

Fort Stewart officials said last month that 420 of the 633 soldiers on medical hold did go to Iraq.

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