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The Touchstone, vol. XV, No. 2, April 2005
From a Vet of Our Current Iraq War
by Jason N. Thelen
Preface: I am an advocate
of letting our elected representatives to Washington know how we feel on important issues. They represent
the citizens of their districts, not public interest groups, lobbying firms, or even their political party. Unfortunately,
all too often they send boilerplate replies to correspondence because there is no accountability. Nobody reads the letter
except a low-level staffer with a B.A. in Political Science and a stack of correspondence to get through before quittin'
time. "Ahhh, a letter about Social Security. Just open up SSI-REPLY.DOT, throw the dude's name into Mailmerge, and
hit Print. " What's the solution? Let them know that America is watching. Senator, I sent you a
letter on January 19th about the status of VA healthcare. America now knows that you received it. How will
January 19, 2005
Dear Senator Cornyn,
I have been a member of the US military since I was 17 years old, both as an enlisted soldier and now as
an officer. I was deployed to Iraq with Army Civil Affairs from April 2003 to March 2004, where I served in the Sadr City.
Since my return to Dallas, I have concluded that the health care systems for the military and veterans are utterly broken.
Additionally, our leadership is ignoring the psychological and physical problems faced by returning veterans.
The results of a study conducted by the VA Inspector General were recently released. ("Dallas VA Hospital
is Nation's Worst," Dallas Morning News, January 18, 2005, Page 1.) The Dallas VA Hospital serves 38 counties in
Texas, as well as 2 in Oklahoma. All veterans in the area must be routed through the Dallas management system to obtain care.
Even with a main infrastructure that was remodeled in 1998, the hospital scored last in the entire country. Investigators
found that most of the patient rooms they examined were unclean and had foul odors, walls had buildups of grime, and stretchers
had dried residue of bodily fluids. The administration did not collect or analyze mortality data, and patient injuries such
as falls were not recorded. Waiting times for an appointment can stretch up to a year. There was no evidence of a plan for
better management, and the director of the North Texas VA system quit several weeks ago (at virtually the same time the results
of the study were released.)
To make matters worse, the VA system is struggling with the influx
of mentally and physically injured soldiers returning from Iraq. The VA has promised two years of health care coverage for
combat veterans, but the soldiers are unable to obtain treatment due to long wait times, abhorrent hospital conditions, and
incompetent doctors. The VA system and military doctors refuse to recognize the damage that the war in Iraq is causing.
The problem is not abstract. Real people are involved:
Andrew V. was an Army
officer that I served with in Sadr City. A police officer in civilian life, he was decorated with the Bronze Star for his
acts in Iraq. Upon his return, he faced serious problems dealing with the readjustment to civilian life. Alcohol, PTSD, and
family problems worsened, and nothing helped. In the summer of 2004, he donned his formal Army uniform, placed a noose around
his neck, and stepped from a bridge, killing himself. He left behind a wife and a legacy of faithful service to his country.
William F. is another soldier that I served with in Iraq. On December 17, 2003, we were riding beside each
other in the open back of an unarmored humvee. As we passed, the enemy detonated 20 pounds of plastic explosive that had been
buried in a puddle of sewage beside the road, followed by automatic weapons fire from both sides. William's back was broken
by the blast and shrapnel. Army doctors refused to believe him when he complained of back pain, and they completely missed
the diagnosis for 6 weeks. He is now confronted with the Texas VA health care system, which refused to send him to a specialist
for his injury. A recipient of the Purple Heart, and he got to see a pediatrician. For psychological problems and PTSD, he
was told by a military psychologist that he should "try a few spoonfuls of apple cider vinegar before bedtime."
Charlie M. is an enlisted soldier that was transferred from Fallujah to my team in Sadr City. In addition
to the normal attacks, he endured two roadside bombs in unarmored vehicles and an AK-47 round directly to the back of his
body armor. Understandably upset, he asked for psychological help. None was available. One morning, he confronted our unit
commander while naked and wielding a cinderblock. He stated that he was not going on any more missions, then dropped the block
on his foot. She reduced him in rank, got him a prescription for medication (but no counseling), and sent him to Sadr City
as punishment. (At the time, Sadr City was more dangerous than Fallujah.) Charlie is now unemployed in Abilene, but the Army
is looking at him to volunteer for another deployment to Iraq.
Without help, what does a struggling
veteran do? Ignore the problem and hope it goes away. Drink too much. Sleep too little. Fill the emptiness with some addiction.
Watch personal relationships crumble.
The leadership of the military admits that 1 in 6 returning
soldiers suffer from mental readjustment issues. In reality, the number is much higher, but everyone looks the other way.
While at a wedding recently, I had a discussion with a VA employee who evaluates disability claims. He stated that he does
not believe that returning veterans have problems, and that they are simply looking for easy money. Because of this belief,
he disapproves PTSD claims.
These are the problems we face. How can you help? Simple: demand
quality health care for returning soldiers and veterans; and confront the military and VA with their refusal to recognize
physical injuries and mental problems.
I thank you for your assistance and advocacy.
Jason N. Thelen
For the past fifty
years, our military has been subjected to an obscure legal doctrine known as "The Feres Doctrine." While the average soldier can normally
spend his entire career without even giving the Supreme Court a second thought, the results of Feres are seen daily
in military clinics and hospitals.
According to Feres, the United States is not liable under
the Federal Tort Claims Act for injuries to members of the armed forces sustained while on active duty and resulting from
the negligence of others in the armed forces. Basically, Feres states that if a military doctor cuts off your otherwise healthy leg by mistake, you get no money from the government.
It applies with equal force to negligence by any soldiers, including professionals such as military lawyers, pharmacists,
nurses, psychologists, and pilots. The Supreme Court crafted the doctrine in 1950 with Feres v. United States, and
it has been continually upheld by courts since that time. Judges refuse to overturn Feres and point to Congress to
change the statute. Legislators ignore the courts, either inadvertently or by design. The
outcome can be criminal medical care and an unaccountable government.
When I was with
the First Cavalry Division, I worked on the case of a Major who was being eliminated from the service. He had graduated from
medical school, but never passed his medical boards despite repeated attempts. (He was also being kicked out for getting caught
shoplifting and for a DUI.) The military allowed him to practice medicine under the supervision of another doctor, which is
a fairly straightforward practice.
You're probably saying to yourself, "So what's
the problem?" He was an eye surgeon. "It's not problem to let him operate on a soldier's eyes, since he's
under the supervision of another doctor, right?" Wrong. The supervising physician was at Fort Sam Houston, and he was
at Fort Hood. If he blinded a soldier, the doctor could not be sued since he was operating
within the scope of his employment. The government could not be sued because of Feres.
All the soldier gets is an "Oops" and two glass eyes (which are probably
made by the lowest bidder).
If the government
knew it might be liable in a lawsuit, it would have a vastly increased incentive to provide quality medical care. A
former commander of mine once told me that, "the true measure of a man may be seen in how he behaves when he knows he
will not be held accountable for his actions." Remove the incentive
for doing the right thing, guarantee a lack of punishment for doing the wrong, and what do you get? All too often,
you are left with the expedient, the cheap, and the good-enough- for- government-work. When
Uncle Sam knows he will not be sued for botched surgeries, erroneous prescriptions, and filthy hospitals, he has no incentive
to fix those problems.
I do not mean to denigrate the valiant efforts of our doctors,
nurses, and medics that serve with honor and save lives every day, both in combat or peacetime. I do have an issue with incompetence,
malfeasance, and a $$-covering. If those are present, the problem needs to fixed and those accountable need to be punished,
whatever the profession.
Feres does have salvageable sections. For instance, we do
not want Private Schmedlapp second-guessing his company commander's tactical decisions in a court of law. To allow him
to sue his superiors for negligent decisions would almost certainly injure good order and discipline. So, maintaining the
bar to negligence actions does make sense where the command relationship would be challenged. But, is there any harm to good order and discipline if a soldier or his widow sues the federal government based on negligent
medical care in the post hospital? No. It makes the government accountable for ensuring quality military medicine.
What is the solution to the problem? End the finger-pointing. Either the Supreme Court needs to overturn
Feres, or Congress needs to amend the statute to clarify
the issue. Allow negligence lawsuits that are aimed outside of the chain of command, such as for professional malpractice,
but maintain the prohibition on a soldier suing his superiors. Regardless of the solution, we cannot allow "business
as usual" to continue.
Countless people gloss over the words "God Bless America"
without a second thought. Well, God has blessed America, because our nation
has been endowed with amazing young men and women that are willing to sacrifice everything to keep us free. They deserve only
the best in return.
[These columns originally appeared
on the Veterans for Common Sense website: http://www.veteransforcommonsense.org/]