Bill Totten's Weblog

Monday, February 26, 2007

Army Acts to Curb Abuses of Injured Recruits

by Ralph Blumenthal

The New York Times (May 12 2006)

The Army has shaken up a program to heal recruits injured in basic training after soldiers and their parents said troops hurt at Fort Sill were punished with physical abuse and medical neglect.

The program, which treated more than 1,100 injured soldiers last year at five posts, normally returns three-fourths of its patients to active duty, according to Army statistics. But at Fort Sill, recruits said, injuries were often subject to derision, ignored or improperly treated.

Two soldiers in the program have died since 2004, one or possibly both of accidental overdoses of prescription drugs. The latest death, in March, remains under investigation, the Army said.

"I am an inmate", one soldier, Private First Class Mathew Scarano of Eureka, California, wrote in a letter home in January two months before he died. "I sometimes ask those friends of mine with jailhouse tattoos if they'd rather be back in jail, or here. So far, they are unanimous - jail."

Commanders acknowledge problems with the Physical Training and Rehabilitation Program, and they have ordered changes here at the Field Artillery Center and at the other training centers. For the first time, as a result of the Fort Sill problems, a medical professional is to head each program.

A civilian spokesman at the fort, Jon Long, said an investigation had substantiated "misbehavior" by a drill sergeant who, soldiers say, kicked a trainee with stitches in his knee. Mr Long said the sergeant had been suspended and reassigned, along with another drill sergeant who, soldiers complained, had repeatedly awakened injured trainees throughout the night for uniform changes and formations.

The events, after a drill sergeant's bribery scandal last year and a drug sting that ensnared twelve soldiers, have thrown a cloud over Fort Sill, one of the centers for nine weeks of basic training where volunteers first report on the way to Iraq or elsewhere. GIs who fall prey to sprains and fractures and cannot complete the often grueling passage to "warrior" are sent to the Physical Training and Rehabilitation Program, where a motto reads "Heal and Ship".

Soldiers' blogs reflect dissatisfaction at some of the other programs, too, but Lieutenant Colonel Michael Russell, command psychologist at the Training and Doctrine Command in Fort Missourinroe, Virginia, who was involved in the new therapy, said just Fort Sill had had a fatality or major complaints. The other sites are Fort Benning, Georgia; Fort Jackson, South Carolina; Fort Knox, Kentucky; and Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.

"Of course, we take anything like that very seriously", Colonel Russell said. "We're going to put medical people in charge". At Fort Sill, an artillery captain has been in charge.

The Army now limits treatments to six months, with evaluations after three months and then monthly.

In interviews, soldiers and parents said injured troops regularly suffered punitive treatment as malingerers, although many had joined specifically to serve in Iraq.

A trainee with a broken finger who was described by fellow soldiers as frustrated by indifferent treatment, slashed himself with a razor, smeared himself with feces and walked around naked, the Army confirmed. Regarded as faking illness, he was returned to his unit to finish training.

Soldiers in the forty-member unit said their injuries often went unattended in stays that exceeded six months and worsened while they waited to see specialists in short supply because of medical needs in Iraq.

"I don't want to say cruel and unusual punishment, but that's what it was", said Tom Nugent of Candor, New York., near Ithaca. His son Private Justin Nugent has had two operations since a shoulder "popped out" after push-ups in July.

Another parent, Steven Howell, an aide to Representative Mark Souder, Republican of Indiana, said he and his wife had complained about the treatment of their son Clayton, who has spent a year in the "limbo" of the program after a gallbladder attack. "My main concern as a parent is that medical issues are not being addressed properly", Mr Howell said.

One mother critical of the war who had an injured son in the unit and another son serving in Iraq, appealed to Amnesty International and members of Congress for help. The mother, Patricia deVarennes, from outside Sarasota, Florida, brought to light the complaints about her son Private First Class Richard Thurman by posting them on her blog, along with Private Scarano's final e-mail messages.

They were then reported in a March issue of a biweekly left-wing newsletter, CounterPunch.

"The supreme irony", said Ms deVarennes, a writer and computer specialist, "is that I was more worried about my son at Fort Sill than the one in Iraq".

Colonel Russell credited Ms deVarennes with bringing the problems to his attention.

In e-mail responses to questions, Mr Long, the Fort Sill spokesman, confirmed that an investigation focused on accusations of physical and verbal abuse. He declined to discuss details because no one had been charged with a crime. But Mr Long said the initial findings did substantiate the reports of misbehavior by the drill sergeant, who was said to have kicked the soldier and who along with another drill sergeant received "administrative disciplinary action".

The findings, Mr Long said, also pointed to "command climate issues" that allowed cursing at injured soldiers. He said none of the physical or verbal abuse had been directed at Private Scarano or was involved with his death. Mr Long said it might be weeks before a toxicology report provided an official cause of death.

He said that in July 2004 a private in the program was found to have died from "acute methadone intoxication" after an accidental overdose.

Fort Sill, where up to 15,000 troops a year are trained and sent to active duty, had already been brushed by problems. In January 2005, a longtime drill sergeant was convicted of taking bribes to guarantee that recruits would pass basic training.

In October, the first of twelve present and former soldiers at the post were caught in an FBI sting and charged with conspiring to guard cocaine shipments while in uniform.

The fort commander, Major General David C Ralston, said he was confident that the leadership of the healing program took the correct actions after a thorough investigation. General Ralston said he was pleased with the improvements at Fort Sill, where the success rate was 75 percent, one of the highest for the training centers.

"Although this is a very good track record", the general added, "there will always be challenges to taking so many young adults and giving them the rigorous training they need to serve successfully in our nation's Army and to win on the battlefield".

In letters home, Private Scarano, who severely injured his shoulder in a fall in training, said he was wearing a patch with the painkiller fentanyl, which he called "eighty times stronger than heroin", and also wrote: "The Army has me on Ambien, seroquel, tylox and oxycontins. I also get trazadone to take the edge off".

At that time, Mr Long said, soldiers were not monitored while taking medication. Now, they are closely supervised. In another change, he said, a patient advocate has been assigned to monitor lengths of stay.

Interviewed on visiting weekend in April, Private Thurman, Ms deVarennes's son, said he had passed an alternative physical fitness test that replaced running with walking. But after graduating basic training in November with his family at the ceremony, he said, he and two other soldiers were "ungraduated" and put into the Physical Training and Rehabilitation Program. He was belatedly found to have suffered stress fractures in his feet.

Mr Long confirmed the confusion over the acceptability of the alternative test.

Private Thurman, who has completed more than four months in the program and has been sent to his first duty station as a computer artilleryman, and other soldiers said morale plummeted around mid-January with the arrival of a new drill sergeant, Robert Langford.

On the Martin Luther King's Birthday holiday weekend, with the rest of the post off duty, Sergeant Langford ordered the therapy unit to move out the bunk beds and lockers and hand scrape the wax off the floor tiles. When the results were not to his liking, the soldiers said, the sergeant had them redo it. While scraping, Private Scarano cracked his injured shoulder, he wrote home.

The kicking episode occurred about that time, soldiers said, when Sergeant Langford ordered an injured private, Damien McMahon, 21, of Emporia, Kansas, "to take a knee", or bow, after losing his temper in a formation. Private McMahon, who had had knee surgery for a staph infection and was also in disciplinary trouble for sneaking to the PX on a tobacco run, said the investigators had asked him not to discuss the case. But he confirmed accounts by fellow soldiers that he had protested that kneeling was painful and that the sergeant had kicked him in his bad knee, loosening one of nine stitches.

Sergeant Langford, reached by telephone at home at Fort Sill, refused to discuss the accusations and denied that he had been suspended before hanging up.

Also around January, soldiers said, another drill sergeant, Troy Bullock, suspected that a soldier in the unit had sneaked a cigarette and ordered the entire injury unit woken up every hour from ten pm to two am for uniform changes and formations, even though some patients were on heavy sleep medications, the soldiers said. Mr Long said he could not comment, and no telephone listing for Sergeant Bullock could be found.

On March 7, in an e-mail note to Ms deVarennes later put on her blog, Private Scarano said, "I am a casualty of a broken system; I fell through the cracks of the bureaucracy".

If he could get out at least temporarily, Private Scarano said, he wanted to explore a more promising civilian procedure to repair his shoulder "instead of being a guinea pig to a medical system I have no faith in, whatever".

Bill Totten


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