Injured Troops Shipped Back Into Battle

Salon.com, April 9, 2007

Injured troops shipped back into battle
Salon has uncovered further evidence that the military sent soldiers with acute post-traumatic stress disorder, severe back injuries and other serious war wounds back to Iraq.

By Mark Benjamin

Apr. 09, 2007 | On March 9, Army Spc. Thomas Smith was ordered to board a plane from Fort Benning, Ga., to deploy back to Iraq, even though he was known to be suffering from chronic post-traumatic stress disorder from a previous tour there. Only weeks prior, military doctors determined that Smith should not be allowed around weapons because of his PTSD symptoms, which included bouts of sudden, extreme anger. Smith’s medical records, obtained by Salon, also show that doctors had “highly recommended” that Smith not be deployed because of his condition.

But that did not stop Smith’s commanders from ordering him to Iraq as his unit, the 3,900-strong 3rd Brigade of the 3rd Infantry Division, was rushing to move out as part of President Bush’s so-called surge plan for securing Baghdad.

“I was told to have my bags in at midnight that night,” for the flight, Smith said. “I was sitting there looking at these letters in my hand from my doctors,” he recalled in a telephone interview. In order to follow the doctors’ recommendations, Smith said, “I had to check myself into the hospital.” He avoided the flight by just a few hours. Smith’s condition was serious enough that the doctors there kept him hospitalized for nearly two weeks.

On March 11, two days after Smith checked himself in, Salon reported on claims by numerous soldiers from Smith’s brigade that commanders were pressing injured troops to deploy to Iraq. (See article below.) Soldiers at Fort Benning said that two doctors from the division met with 75 injured soldiers, including Smith, on Feb. 15, in what the troops said was an effort to reevaluate — and downgrade — their health problems so that they could be deployed with the rest of the unit. In several cases, medical records provided to Salon supported those allegations, showing the soldiers to be healthier, on paper, than they were prior to that meeting.

It remains unclear how many injured troops from the 3rd Brigade were deployed last month. But others continue to come forward who, like Smith, had serious medical problems and narrowly avoided being shipped back to Iraq. The concern of these soldiers is not only that they could worsen their injuries by being deployed, but that they could also be a danger to themselves and the soldiers around them. Their stories add new evidence to accusations that brigade commanders, in desperate need of more troops for the surge were willing to deploy broken soldiers.

Hunter Smart, who until recently was a captain in the 3rd Brigade, has experience preparing unit status reports. These detailed accounts showing how many soldiers in a unit are able to deploy to a war zone, make their way up to decision makers in the Pentagon. Smart says he believes brigade commanders were manipulating the reports and pressing injured soldiers to deploy to Iraq. “The unit status report is a big deal,” Hunter explained in a phone interview. “You list by name and number the number of soldiers that are hurt and non-deployable,” he said. “There was a concerted effort to keep those numbers down.”

Smart was caught up in those efforts himself. He had suffered a back injury during a previous tour in Iraq when his Bradley Fighting Vehicle crashed, and his injuries were so severe, the Army finally allowed him medical retirement last month, after determining he was no longer fit to serve.

Medical retirement from the Army is a lengthy, paperwork-intensive process, one that had started for Smart last December. But to his astonishment, Smart’s commanders pushed to deploy him in March, even as the paperwork for his medical retirement was working its way through the bureaucracy. “They were definitely wanting me to be deployed,” Smart said. “Up until a few weeks ago, I was set to go on a plane,” he said.

Smart saved an e-mail exchange in which his battalion commander, Lt. Col. Todd Ratliff, suggests that if the paperwork for Smart’s medical retirement was not complete when the unit deployed, Smart might be forced to come along. “If for some reason you are still around when we deploy there is a chance we may take you to support us in Kuwait,” Ratliff wrote in an e-mail to Smart on Feb. 16.

Smart fought against his redeployment, using the resources available to him as an officer to carefully shepherd his medical retirement papers through the Army bureaucracy just in time. But the experience left him worried about injured enlisted soldiers who were not so lucky — and left him furious at those in charge. Military commanders “could care less about the soldier’s physical and mental welfare, as long as they can shoot straight,” Smart said. “Our military is stretched to its breaking point,” he added. “Commanders are being backed into a corner in order to produce units that on paper are ready to deploy. They are casting the moral and ethical implications — and soldiers — to the side.”

Smith, the enlisted soldier who was hospitalized, began noticing symptoms of his PTSD within months of returning from Iraq in January 2005, a tour that included significant time in Ramadi, a hotbed of the insurgency. It was nasty, face-to-face work, Smith said, which included a lot of “kicking down doors.”

Smith’s medical records are sadly typical of soldiers beset by PTSD. His doctors have documented agitation, irritability, anxiety, nightmares, flashbacks and a heightened startle response. He has a hard time going out in public. “My family had noticed some big differences with me,” after his tour in Iraq, he recalled, including his sudden, intense anger. “They said, ‘Hey, you need help.'”

Smith sought treatment, and doctors soon diagnosed chronic PTSD. He is now heavily medicated, taking anti-psychotic pills and antidepressants.

His records show him struggling with his symptoms as the brigade was gearing up to deploy. On Feb. 8, several military doctors completed a “report of mental status evaluation” on Smith. “It is highly recommended that patient be placed on non-deployable status and have no access to weapons,” the doctors wrote. On Feb. 20, another doctor circled “violence risk” on another of Smith’s health-assessment forms.

But two weeks after that violence-risk notation, Smith found himself just hours away from stepping on to a plane to Iraq. He was running out of time and options. His company commander had already gone to bat for him, with no luck. Smith claims that on two separate occasions, his company commander took his doctors’ notes to the brigade commander, Col. Wayne W. Grigsby Jr., in an effort to persuade Grigsby to leave Smith behind in doctors’ care. “I’ve got to hand it to my company commander for trying,” Smith said. But Smith said his company commander told him that Grigsby wouldn’t budge. Smith resorted to checking himself into the hospital.

Privacy rules restrict what Army commanders can say about an individual soldier’s medical file. Public affairs officials for the 3rd Infantry Division did not respond to questions for this report on the plight of soldiers who were deployed with injuries. The division surgeon, Lt. Col. George Appenzeller, confirmed in an interview last month that medical officials met with 75 soldiers on Feb. 15. However, Appenzeller maintained that it was to conduct medical exams, update paperwork and make sure injured troops were getting the best healthcare possible.

Grigsby, the 3rd Brigade commander, said in an interview last month that the well-being of his soldiers was among his top priorities. He did not deny deploying injured troops, but he asserted that the injured soldiers who were deployed were to be confined to relatively safe jobs. He said those troops would work in a capacity that strictly followed each soldier’s “physical profile,” a document prepared by doctors spelling out a soldier’s physical limitations.

But one injured soldier who was deployed to Iraq in March wrote in an e-mail to Salon that her back condition has worsened significantly. “Now my left leg has started to go numb and they are telling me to double up on my meds, which I can’t,” she wrote. “They are not putting us in safe jobs at all. I still wear all of my gear and by the end of the day the pain is more than unbearable,” she added. “I break my [physical] profile pretty much on a daily basis. At this point I will either go back [home] in a wheel chair or paralyzed or worse.”

“Do what you can,” she pleaded in the e-mail, “for the [injured soldiers] that come after me.”

As Salon revealed in a second report on March 26, the commanders of the 3rd Brigade shipped dozens of injured soldiers to Fort Irwin, Calif., in January as the brigade conducted a month of desert-warfare training. The injured soldiers were put up in two large tents, doing odd jobs and biding their time. Some military experts said they believed commanders were attempting to artificially boost manpower statistics by making it appear that a healthier percentage of the brigade was out in the desert training for Iraq deployment.

Both Smith and Smart were among the dozens of soldiers who spent weeks in those tents. Neither could properly train. Smith had already been diagnosed with PTSD at that time, and would awaken at night agitated by the sound of mortars going off in the desert that were used for training. Neither Smith nor Smart was treated for his medical problems while in the desert.

In Smart’s case, that went directly against the recommendations of his doctors. “I believe taking a month off from his treatment plan will be detrimental to his condition,” one chiropractor wrote in Smart’s file in late December. “Lack of treatment for this prolonged period of time could cause a setback in his condition that may be difficult to recover.”

Military families are angered by the treatment of injured soldiers based at Fort Benning. Janie Smith, Thomas’ mother, says she was horrified that the Army tried to send her ailing son back to Iraq, which prompted her to contact the media about his predicament.

She described him as an outgoing, personable boy. But the 26-year-old man who came back from Iraq is quiet, withdrawn and sometimes suddenly, frighteningly angry, she says. In a restaurant, he sits facing the door, ready to confront an enemy at any moment. His hands constantly shake. “He is an entirely different person,” Janie explained in a phone interview.

Janie said she was glad when her son first joined the Army. “I was really proud of him,” she recalled. But while she is still proud of her son, her feelings for the Army have changed. “They don’t care,” she said. “I don’t know what I’m going to do now.”

The Army’s inspector general and the Government Accountability Office have both launched inquiries since Salon first reported on the deployment of injured troops. There is no indication of when either will issue its findings.

An Earlier Article
Salon.com, March 12, 2007

At Fort Benning, soldiers who were classified as medically unfit to fight are now being sent to war. Is this an isolated incident or a trend?

by Mark Benjamin

“This is not right,” said Master Sgt. Ronald Jenkins, who has been ordered to Iraq even though he has a spine problem that doctors say would be damaged further by heavy Army protective gear. “This whole thing is about taking care of soldiers,” he said angrily. “If you are fit to fight you are fit to fight. If you are not fit to fight, then you are not fit to fight.”

George W. Bush greets troops and their families on the tarmac before his departure from Fort Benning, Ga., on Jan. 11, 2007. (Reuters Photo/Jason Reed)
As the military scrambles to pour more soldiers into Iraq, a unit of the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division at Fort Benning, Ga., is deploying troops with serious injuries and other medical problems, including GIs who doctors have said are medically unfit for battle. Some are too injured to wear their body armor, according to medical records.

On Feb. 15, Master Sgt. Jenkins and 74 other soldiers with medical conditions from the 3rd Division’s 3rd Brigade were summoned to a meeting with the division surgeon and brigade surgeon. These are the men responsible for handling each soldier’s “physical profile,” an Army document that lists for commanders an injured soldier’s physical limitations because of medical problems — from being unable to fire a weapon to the inability to move and dive in three-to-five-second increments to avoid enemy fire. Jenkins and other soldiers claim that the division and brigade surgeons summarily downgraded soldiers’ profiles, without even a medical exam, in order to deploy them to Iraq. It is a claim division officials deny.

The 3,900-strong 3rd Brigade is now leaving for Iraq for a third time in a steady stream. In fact, some of the troops with medical conditions interviewed by Salon last week are already gone. Others are slated to fly out within a week, but are fighting against their chain of command, holding out hope that because of their ills they will ultimately not be forced to go. Jenkins, who is still in Georgia, thinks doctors are helping to send hurt soldiers like him to Iraq to make units going there appear to be at full strength. “This is about the numbers,” he said flatly.

That is what worries Steve Robinson, director of veterans affairs at Veterans for America, who has long been concerned that the military was pressing injured troops into Iraq. “Did they send anybody down range that cannot wear a helmet, that cannot wear body armor?” Robinson asked rhetorically. “Well that is wrong. It is a war zone.” Robinson thinks that the possibility that physical profiles may have been altered improperly has the makings of a scandal. “My concerns are that this needs serious investigation. You cannot just look at somebody and tell that they were fit,” he said. “It smacks of an overstretched military that is in crisis mode to get people onto the battlefield.”

Eight soldiers who were at the Feb. 15 meeting say they were summoned to the troop medical clinic at 6:30 in the morning and lined up to meet with division surgeon Lt. Col. George Appenzeller, who had arrived from Fort Stewart, Ga., and Capt. Aaron K. Starbuck, brigade surgeon at Fort Benning. The soldiers described having a cursory discussion of their profiles, with no physical exam or extensive review of medical files. They say Appenzeller and Starbuck seemed focused on downplaying their physical problems. “This guy was changing people’s profiles left and right,” said a captain who injured his back during his last tour in Iraq and was ordered to Iraq after the Feb. 15 review.

Appenzeller said the review of 75 soldiers with profiles was an effort to make sure they were as accurate as possible prior to deployment. “As the division surgeon and the senior medical officer in the division, I wanted to ensure that all the patients with profiles were fully evaluated with clear limitations that commanders could use to make the decision whether they could deploy, and if they did deploy, what their limitations would be while there,” he said in a telephone interview from Fort Stewart. He said he changed less than one-third of those profiles — even making some more restrictive — in order to “bring them into accordance with regulations.”

In direct contradiction to the account given by the soldiers, Appenzeller said physical examinations were conducted and that he had a robust medical team there working with him, which is how they managed to complete 75 reviews in one day. Appenzeller denied that the plan was to find more warm bodies for the surge into Baghdad, as did Col. Wayne W. Grigsby Jr., the brigade commander. Grigsby said he is under “no pressure” to find soldiers, regardless of health, to make his unit look fit. The health and welfare of his soldiers are a top priority, said Grigsby, because [the soldiers] are “our most important resource, perhaps the most important resource we have in this country.”

Grigsby said he does not know how many injured soldiers are in his ranks. But he insisted that it is not unusual to deploy troops with physical limitations so long as he can place them in safe jobs when they get there. “They can be productive and safe in Iraq,” Grigsby said.

The injured soldiers interviewed by Salon, however, expressed considerable worry about going to Iraq with physical deficits because it could endanger them or their fellow soldiers. Some were injured on previous combat tours. Some of their ills are painful conditions from training accidents or, among relatively older troops, degenerative problems like back injuries or blown-out knees. Some of the soldiers have been in the Army for decades.

And while Grigsby, the brigade commander, says he is under no pressure to find troops, it is hard to imagine there is not some desperation behind the decision to deploy some of the sick soldiers. Master Sgt. Jenkins, 42, has a degenerative spine problem and a long scar down the back of his neck where three of his vertebrae were fused during surgery. He takes a cornucopia of potent pain pills. His medical records say he is “at significantly increased risk of re-injury during deployment where he will be wearing Kevlar, body armor and traveling through rough terrain.” Late last year, those medical records show, a doctor recommended that Jenkins be referred to an Army board that handles retirements when injuries are permanent and severe.

A copy of Jenkins’ profile written after that Feb. 15 meeting and signed by Capt. Starbuck, the brigade surgeon, shows a healthier soldier than the profile of Jenkins written by another doctor just late last year, though Jenkins says his condition is unchanged. Other soldiers’ documents show the same pattern.

One female soldier with psychiatric issues and a spine problem has been in the Army for nearly 20 years. “My [health] is deteriorating,” she said over dinner at a restaurant near Fort Benning. “My spine is separating. I can’t carry gear.” Her medical records include the note “unable to deploy overseas.” Her status was also reviewed on Feb. 15. And she has been ordered to Iraq this week.

The captain interviewed by Salon also requested anonymity because he fears retribution. He suffered a back injury during a previous deployment to Iraq as an infantry platoon leader. A Humvee accident “corkscrewed my spine,” he explained. Like the female soldier, he is unable to wear his protective gear, and like her he too was ordered to Iraq after his meeting with the division surgeon and brigade surgeon on Feb. 15. He is still at Fort Benning and is fighting the decision to send him to Baghdad. “It is a numbers issue with this whole troop surge,” he claimed. “They are just trying to get those numbers.”

Another soldier contacted Salon by telephone last week expressed considerable anxiety, in a frightened tone, about deploying to Iraq in her current condition. (She also wanted to remain anonymous, fearing retribution.) An incident during training several years ago injured her back, forcing doctors to remove part of her fractured coccyx. She suffers from degenerative disk disease and has two ruptured disks and a bulging disk in her back. While she said she loves the Army and would like to deploy after back surgery, her current injuries would limit her ability to wear her full protective gear. She deployed to Iraq last week, the day after calling Salon.

Her husband, who has served three combat tours in the infantry in Afghanistan and Iraq, said he is worried sick because his wife’s protective vest alone exceeds the maximum amount she is allowed to lift. “I have been over there three times. I know what it is like,” he told me during lunch at a restaurant here. He predicted that by deploying people like his wife, the brigade leaders are “going to get somebody killed over there.” He said there is “no way” Grigsby is going to keep all of the injured soldiers in safe jobs. “All of these people that deploy with these profiles, they are scared,” he said. He railed at the command: “They are saying they don’t care about your health. This is pathetic. It is bad.”

His wife’s physical profile was among those reevaluated on Feb. 15. A copy of her profile from late last year showed her health problems were so severe they “prevent deployment” and recommended she be medically retired from the Army. Her profile at that time showed she was unable to wear a protective mask and chemical defense equipment, and had limitations on doing pushups, walking, biking and swimming. It said she can only carry 15 pounds.

Though she says that her condition has not changed since then, almost all of those findings were reversed in a copy of her physical profile dated Feb. 15. The new profile says nothing about a medical retirement, but suggests that she limit wearing a helmet to “one hour at a time.”

Spc. Lincoln Smith, meanwhile, developed sleep apnea after he returned from his first deployment to Iraq. The condition is so severe that he now suffers from narcolepsy because of a lack of sleep. He almost nodded off mid-conversation while talking to Salon as he sat in a T-shirt on a sofa in his girlfriend’s apartment near Fort Benning.

Smith is trained by the Army to be a truck driver. But since he is in constant danger of falling asleep, military doctors have listed “No driving of military vehicles” on his physical profile. Smith was supposed to fly to Iraq March 9. But he told me on March 8 that he won’t go. Nobody has retrained Smith to do anything else besides drive trucks. Plus, because of his condition he was unable to train properly with the unit when the brigade rehearsed for Iraq in January, so he does not feel ready.

Smith needs to sleep with a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine pumping air into his mouth and nose. “Otherwise,” he says, “I could die.” But based on his last tour, he is not convinced he will be able to be in places with constant electricity or will be able to fix or replace his CPAP machine should it fail.

He told me last week he would refuse to deploy to Iraq, unsure of what he will be asked to do there and afraid that he will not be taken care of. Since he won’t be a truck driver, “I would be going basically as a number,” says Smith, who is 32. “They don’t have enough people,” he says. But he is not going to be one of those numbers until they train him to do something else. “I’m going to go to the airport, and I’m going to tell them I’m not going to go. They are going to give me a weapon. I am going to say, ‘It is not a good idea for you to give me a weapon right now.'”

The Pentagon was notified of the reclassification of the Fort Benning soldiers as soon as it happened, according to Master Sgt. Jenkins. He showed Salon an e-mail describing the situation that he says he sent to Army Surgeon General Lt. Gen. Kevin C. Kiley. Jenkins agreed to speak to Salon because he hopes public attention will help other soldiers, particularly younger ones in a similar predicament. “I can’t sit back and let this happen to me or other soldiers in my position.” But he expects reprisals from the Army.

Other soldiers slated to leave for Iraq with injuries said they wonder whether the same thing is happening in other units in the Army. “You have to ask where else this might be happening and who is dictating it,” one female soldier told me. “How high does it go?”

© 2007 Salon Media Group, Inc

###

On a related issue, the US has not begun to prepare for the long-term needs of more than 7000 servicemen with brain, spinal, amputation and other serious injuries.  A Columbia University report says  to date [31 December 2005], 3213 people — 20% of those injured in Iraq — have suffered head/brain injuries that require lifetime continual care at a cost range of $600,000 to $5 million.   Nearly one in six Fort Carson Iraq veterans have been diagnosed with traumatic brain injuries, according to a two-year study released Tuesday by Fort Carson’s medical staff.  At the same time, the chair of a special Veterans’ Disability Benefits Commission recently testified to the Senate that the Army downgrading injured soldiers’ disability ratings to disqualify them from lifetime healthcare and retirement payments.  

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4 Responses to “Injured Troops Shipped Back Into Battle”


  1. 1 slivermoon22 April 12, 2007 at 4:06 pm

    My God.

    What level of hell is this?

    Thank you so much for blogging this here. I have taken it and passed it along to my 10,000 online subscribers. I will also post on my other 6 blogs.

    Just wow.

    THIS IS EVIL PERSONIFIED.

  2. 2 susumu October 10, 2007 at 8:59 am

    medical examination from japann
    郵送 検診

  3. 3 Karl Wurz January 7, 2010 at 10:37 am

    The US military is ordering injured troops to go to Afghanistan!

    This is NOW, January 2010, two years after the reported incident at Fort Benning and one year after a new president was inaugurated who promised change.

    The reason for this reply is not to make a political statement. This is to try to help the injured troops who are fighting deployment NOW! This post is specifically targeted to the injured troops and to their loved ones who are fighting their deployment now.

    How can I help to get your stories known?

    How can we help to stop to deployment of clearly injured troops into a war zone NOW?

    How can we make known what is going on right now – under the new political leadership which promised CHANGE?

    How can we stop the immoral actions of the military leadership and military medical leadership to get warm bodies into a war zone – with no regard to the fact that these troops cannot even wear their body armor?

    THE US MILITARY IS ORDERING INJURED TROOPS TO GO TO AFGHANISTAN!
    They are doing it now in January of 2010!

  4. 4 anony June 5, 2010 at 12:26 pm

    It continues to these day across many units. It goes beyond deployments too… just ask the thousands of Soldiers treated poorly by their chain of command due to injuries… ask the Soldiers who’s leadership claimed that they were faking their serious injuries and doing everything in their power to make their lives more difficult. I don’t understand why nobody is listening.


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