Army moves to improve lot of part-time soldiers

Senator questions extent of inadequacies in housing, medical care

November 01, 2003|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - With reports that hundreds of Army National Guard and Reserve soldiers mobilized for the war on terror are living in substandard military base housing and sometimes waiting months for medical care, the Army is sending more medical staff to the bases and moving the soldiers to better quarters.

But Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, a Vermont Democrat and co-chairman of the National Guard Caucus, said he wonders whether the problems, which surfaced at Fort Stewart, Ga., are widespread.

He wants an investigation of more than a dozen other bases where part-time soldiers stay before heading to duty overseas.

"The situation has revealed deeper problems with the Army's mobilization system," Leahy said. He expressed concern about "insufficient housing" at bases across the country and a "severe shortage" of doctors to treat part-time soldiers.

One Senate staff member said the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, would be asked to examine facilities and staffing at bases - from Fort Dix, N.J., to Fort Lewis, Wash. - where Guard and Reserve soldiers assemble for duty. Once the soldiers return to the bases after their duty ends, they sometimes require hospital care.

Army officials said they are responding to the problem. The Army's surgeon-general, Lt. Gen. James B. Peake, has sent top officers to visit each of the bases and determine what is needed. He has also sent more case managers to the bases.

"We've got to compress the time [Guard and Reserve soldiers] are waiting," said Brig. Gen. Richard Ursone, assistant Army surgeon-general for force projection. "They're away from their jobs and their families."

In coming weeks, Ursone said, Army officials at the bases will likely provide more military medical staff, contract with private doctors and hospitals, and turn to Navy and Air Force facilities to share the workload.

But Leahy and Senate staff members suggest a more comprehensive review of the entire Army medical system.

The Vermont senator said he expects facilities at the bases to be particularly strained early next year. That is when tens of thousands of soldiers who will be rotated home from Iraq will compound the bases' medical needs. The problems at Fort Stewart, Leahy said, could be repeated elsewhere.

"The Army has not faced this kind of ongoing mobilization in decades," he said.

The problems came to light a few weeks ago, when press reports said 650 reservists at Fort Stewart who were on "medical hold" were living in substandard barracks and sometimes had to wait months for medical appointments. Soldiers on medical hold must receive care before they can deploy with their units or be discharged.

Two-thirds of these soldiers, most of them from Georgia, Alabama and Florida, had completed their duty overseas.

The soldiers did not have serious injuries but had conditions such as torn cartilage in their knees. Army officials said the average wait for orthopedic surgery at Fort Stewart was four weeks; it's supposed to be two weeks.

If a soldier can't return to duty, a board is supposed to decide within 76 days whether to grant a discharge, according to a report released last week by Leahy and his Guard Caucus co-chairman, Sen. Christopher S. Bond, a Missouri Republican.

Some of those at Fort Stewart, the report said, were on medical hold for 10 months.

When the 18,000 soldiers from the 3rd Infantry Division began returning to the Georgia base over the summer, the Guard and Reserve soldiers on medical hold were moved to 1950s-style barracks with open bays, used normally during short-term training. Some of the barracks lacked air conditioning and had detached bathroom facilities.

The barracks "are not designed to accommodate wounded, injured or ill soldiers undergoing annual training," according to the Senate report.

The report said the situation at Fort Stewart was "hampered by insufficient number of medical clinicians and specialists." Many Army Reserve doctors were deployed overseas. Others had returned to private practice after their usual 90 days' duty. At times, the report said, there were only "a handful" of doctors to care for hundreds of soldiers.

Army officials said their main concern was to ensure that soldiers receive the care needed and the proper benefits if they are discharged, even though some might be inconvenienced by a long wait.

Still, officials concede that Fort Stewart lacked enough medical or administrative personnel.

The Senate report noted that even though the Fort Stewart staff submitted a request "up the chain of command" in late summer for 18 more care providers, no action was taken. It is not known what happened to the request. Now, additional staff is the way to Fort Stewart, including physicians and Army Reserve nurses who serve as case managers and advocate for patients and help move their cases through the system.

"We really didn't have enough case managers on the ground to adequately manage the population," said Ursone, the assistant Army surgeon-general.

Senate staffers also said there were medical care delays at Fort Knox, Ky. There, 429 part-time soldiers are on medical hold.

The soldiers there do not appear to be enduring the long delays that soldiers face at Fort Stewart. Still, said Col. Keith A. Armstrong, the garrison commander, Fort Knox lacked enough staff to handle the cases, and the Army failed to recognize that so many soldiers would be deemed medically unfit.

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