Catonsville soldier died awaiting treatment for illness, family says

Parents ask why he wasn't airlifted to another facility

  • Sgt. John F. Burner III
Sgt. John F. Burner III (Baltimore Sun )
September 22, 2010|By Liz F. Kay, The Baltimore Sun

John Burner Jr. always worried about the safety of his sons while they served in Iraq, but he was confident in the medical response for injured comrades.

But the Catonsville man is left with doubts about the military's treatment of noncombat ailments after his eldest, Sgt. John F. Burner III, 32, died Thursday in Iskandariya while awaiting treatment for a respiratory illness as he traveled to join his battalion.

"You're trained in trauma, but you're not trained for the common cold, or flu, or H1N1," said John Burner, 56.

His son was a satellite systems team chief assigned to the 63rd Signal Battalion (Expeditionary), 35th Signal Brigade in Fort Gordon, Ga., which deployed Aug. 21.

"If he had been in the field and shot in the head, he would have been taken to Germany immediately," the father said. Instead, "during transit, he looked for medical help, and they denied it to him," Mr. Burner said. "He was told that the medical lab was down and testing wasn't available."

Medical officials at Dover Air Force Base performed an autopsy, Mr. Burner said, though he was told it may be six months before a report is released.

Soldiers are evaluated before deploying and receive medical care if needed, Cynthia Vaughan, an Army spokeswoman, wrote in an e-mail. "If a soldier becomes symptomatic or ill in transit, he or she is evacuated to the closest medical facility," she wrote.

In response to questions about whether that protocol was followed for Sgt. Burner, Vaughan said that privacy laws prohibit discussion of an individual's care.

Army officials have reported negligence in recorded interviews, John Burner's father said.

He cautioned that he's "not trying to destroy the Army" — their youngest son, Carl, is an Army Reserve sergeant and is home on funeral leave from a tour in Balad, Iraq. But John Burner and his wife, Sandra, want to know what happened and whether procedures exist to prevent a similar tragedy.

"They're doing what they can to conclude the investigation," the father said. "You really cannot guess anything. You have to wait for the investigation to go all the way through."

Born to a family with a military history stretching back to the Revolutionary War, John F. Burner III enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1996 shortly after he graduated from Catonsville High School, where he played football. He met his wife, Verena, while stationed in Germany, and returned with her to Fort Gordon. The couple have two daughters: Celina, 10; and Caitlyn, 6.

During his 13-year career, he had been deployed to Bosnia as well as two other tours in Iraq. He will be awarded the Bronze Star posthumously, his father said.

Sgt. Burner had pneumonia in the spring, but had fully recovered.

His family was told that he had passed out while in his first stop in Kuwait, where he had stayed for several weeks to train other soldiers while the rest of his battalion continued on to Camp Kalsu in Iraq. He first reported being sick on Sept. 12 and saw a doctor in Kuwait the next day.

The facility was supposed to have a full medical facility, the father said. However, "the blood testing had already been shipped out."

Doctors prescribed him antibiotics, an inhaler and medication for post-nasal drip and confined him to quarters, Mr. Burner said.

"'They are in transit. You have to wait.' Those were their words," the father said.

While he was confined to quarters, staff members were required to check on him several times a day as well as bring him meals. The sergeant told his wife via Skype on Wednesday that he got only one meal on one day, and none the next.

That night, she called her husband's parents in Catonsville, frantic. They promised her they would call the Red Cross and their congressman in the morning. But it was too late. They received a visit from an Army chaplain at 7 a.m.

With the help of Rep. Elijah Cummings' office, their request for John Burner to be buried in Arlington was expedited, and the funeral will be held on October 13. A viewing has been scheduled from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. at Hubbard Funeral Home in Catonsville. .

"If better practices were in place, maybe no one would have to go through this," John Burner said. "Has it happened before? I don't want it to happen again.

"A 32-year-old man should not die from something like this," he said.

Earlier versions of this article incorrectly stated Carl Burner 's military branch. He is a sergeant in the U.S. Army Reserve. The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.

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