Thursday, May 08, 2008
By Gregg Zoroya, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON — More than 43,000 U.S. troops listed as medically unfit for combat in the weeks before their scheduled deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan since 2003 were sent anyway, Pentagon records show.
This reliance on troops found medically "non-deployable" is another sign of stress placed on a military that has sent 1.6 million servicemembers to the war zones, soldier advocacy groups say.
"It is a consequence of the consistent churning of our troops," said Bobby Muller, president of Veterans For America. "They are repeatedly exposed to high-intensity combat with insufficient time at home to rest and heal before redeploying."
The numbers of non-deployable soldiers are based on health assessment forms filled out by medical personnel at each military installation before a servicemember's deployment.
According to those statistics, the number of troops that doctors found non-deployable, but who were still sent to Iraq or Afghanistan fluctuated from 10,854 in 2003, down to 5,397 in 2005, and back up to 9,140 in 2007.
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The Pentagon records do not list what — or how serious — the health issues are, nor whether they were corrected before deployment, said Michael Kilpatrick, a deputy director for the Pentagon's Force Health Protection and Readiness Programs.
A Pentagon staffer examined 10,000 individual health records last year to determine causes for the non-deployable ratings, Kilpatrick said. Some reasons included a need for eyeglasses, dental work or allergy medicine and a small number of mental health cases, he said.
This is the first war in which this health screening process has been used, the Pentagon said.
Most of the non-deployable servicemembers are in the Army, which is doing most of the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Between 5% and 7% of all active-duty, National Guard and Reserve soldiers slated for combat were found medically unfit due to health problems each year since 2003, according to statistics provided to USA TODAY.
Unit commanders make the final decision about whether a servicemember is sent into combat, although doctors can recommend against deployment because of a medical issue, Army spokeswoman Kim Waldron said.
"The commander consults with health care professionals to determine whether the treatment a soldier needs is available in theater," said Army Col. Steven Braverman of the Army Medical Command.
At Fort Carson, Colo., Maj. Gen. Mark Graham ordered an investigation into deployment procedures for a brigade deployed to Iraq late last year. At least 36 soldiers were found medically unfit but were still deployed, Graham told USA TODAY.
For at least seven soldiers, treatment in the war zone was inadequate and the soldiers were sent home, he said, and at least two of them should never have been deployed.
In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee in February, the panel's chairman, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., asked Army leaders about an e-mail from the surgeon for the Fort Carson brigade that said medically "borderline" soldiers went to war because "we have been having issues reaching deployable strength."
"That should not be happening," Army Secretary Pete Geren told the committee. "I can't tell you that it's not, but it certainly should not be happening."
Meanwhile, soldiers with medical problems have also deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan from Fort Drum in New York and Fort Stewart and Fort Benning, both in Georgia, according to Brenda Farrell, who is leading an investigation into the practice for the Government Accountability Office.
A report from that investigation sought by members of the House Armed Services Committee is due in June.