The Army investigates itself again

Why is the Army sending sick troops back into combat? You won't learn the answer from a new internal report.

Published April 23, 2009 10:38AM (EDT)

"I would be going basically as a number," Spc. Lincoln Smith told me. "They don't have enough people." That was March 2007. We were sitting on Smith's sofa in his girlfriend's cramped apartment just outside the gates of Fort Benning, Ga.

Smith was slated to go to Iraq the next day as an Army truck driver, though the sleep apnea and narcolepsy that developed after his first Iraq tour were so bad doctors had written "No driving of military vehicles" on his records.

Smith was one of eight soldiers interviewed by Salon that March in Georgia who claimed the Army was sending them to Iraq despite injuries so bad some couldn't wear body armor.

The story caused an uproar. House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton, D-Mo., asked the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, to investigate. Pete Geren, then acting Army secretary, told a Senate panel, "These allegations are serious and any allegations of that sort, I can assure you, we are going to follow up on and investigate.

It turns out Geren, who is now the Army secretary, did order an investigation -- but not until over a year later. And the investigation he ordered did not address the central allegation made by soldiers, which is that the Army sends sick soldiers back into battle because it is desperate for warm bodies.

On June 18, 2008, in response to "numerous congressional inquiries, media releases and complaints," Geren ordered the Army inspector general to investigate "the growing perception that the Army is deploying soldiers to Iraq and Afghanistan who are medically unfit," according to a copy of that completed investigation obtained by the Army Times late last month.

The results? Yes, the Army has been deploying injured troops to Iraq and Afghanistan. The inspector general "observed deficiencies" that led to those deployments, the report says.

But Geren asked only for a review of "policies and procedures" on deploying injured troops. The report turned up a Byzantine pile of sometimes conflicting Army policies on when a soldier is too injured to fight. The report notes at least 14 of them, and admits that the confusing tangle could result in sick soldiers being sent back to war. "The number of policies currently in existence increases the likelihood that soldiers who do not meet medical deployability requirements may be deployed in violation of one or more policies."

That lone, heavily qualified admission, which appears on the second page of the report, is reproduced below. But nowhere in the nearly impenetrable jargon of the report is there any discussion of motive -- of why doctors or officers might feel compelled to send injured soldiers back into combat.

By Mark Benjamin

Mark Benjamin is a national correspondent for Salon based in Washington, D.C. Read his other articles here.

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Iraq War Medicine U.s. Military