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?
“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.”
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?”
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