Medical hold Units

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Hi there- Tonia Goertz here- This really isn’t a letter to the editor, it is an interview I did with Steve Robinson for Mcom 210- figured I would submit it. If you want the notes and background on this- let me know I wrote it on Nov. 1 and investigations are ongoing- Tonia

Medical Hold

Their “Welcome Home” from the Middle East was not what they expected.

According to Steve Robinson, Executive Director of the National Gulf War Resource Center, troops returning to medical hold units are receiving unexpectedly poor treatment.

Medical hold consists of a two- part process of recovering from injuries or illnesses sustained in combat; and processing through a Medical Evaluation Board to determine whether the service member can remain on active duty.

Based on what Robinson saw, the military was ill prepared to give these men and women the best possible care upon their return.

“We are in a war,” say army personnel when responding to charges of inadequate care. Robinson said that what they should be saying is “only the best in care for our soldiers who return home wounded or injured.”

Robinson, who recently returned from a visit to Fort Stewart, Georgia’s medical hold units said that there are a number of shortcomings. These deficiencies in “prior planning, the medical evaluation boards, and the uniformity of care between active duty and reserve and guard troops. The promise of ‘seamless transition from military or Department of Defense to Veterans Health Administration care and housing’ sounds hollow. Possible retribution toward whistle-blowers has apparently been tabled.

Robinson said, “It appears that Ft. Stewart was not prepared to deal with the number of medical holds that currently exist.” Further, he said that the current problems at Ft. Stewart are partially due to “lack of forecasting to prepare for the staffing needs of the medical hold mission, and the failure of Guard/ Reserve units to ensure that those mobilized for duty are physically fit.”

According to Robinson and findings echoed in a report released on Oct. 24 by the United States Senate National Guard Caucus, the lack of forecasting created immediate delays for Guard and Reserve members. Because the command did not recognize the rapidly developing problem, all soldiers are experiencing delays.

While at Fort Stewart, Robinson met with soldiers who have been “in a medical hold status since January 2003.” Those still in uniform long after their combat missions were complete “expressed frustration with the medical evaluation board process or MEB. Robinson said that, “The command at Fort Stewart recognized there is a learning curve to become proficient in processing these boards,” and is doing what it can to correct this part of the problem.

Time marches on for the troops. Delays in receiving care due to staffing problems only lengthen the “overall process timeline because the MEB process is estimated to take anywhere from 40 to 75 days.” Robinson suggested “specialty training for anyone who finds themselves responsible for the MEB mission,” and recommended that an “MEB self help guide be distributed to soldiers on medical hold” to ensure that they understand the process.

“Seamless transition from DoD to VHA care” is still questionable according to Robinson. Ft. Stewart is providing VHA ready physicals, but because there was no VHA representation “either in the medical facility or with the soldiers in medical hold,” Robinson was unable to determine if the transition was going smoothly for those who have already completed the process.

Robinson recommends, “Identification of troops that will process out of the military, and allowing Veteran Service Organizations to visit the soldiers while on medical hold to assist them in understanding the next step in the claims process.” For the medical hold troops, their hold status is just the beginning of the lengthy process to receive VHA benefits for their injuries and illnesses.

Robinson is also concerned for those who have come forward to ensure that these issues received military and the public attention. He said that outspoken service members followed the chain of command. They presented the issue to the public and the media only after they were told not to complain, not to write their elected representatives, and to “suck it up.”

He said that he has a digital recording provided by one of the soldiers in medical hold confirming that “some soldiers have been threatened with Uniform Code of Military Justice” action for speaking out. As a former Non- Commissioned Officer in the army, he recommends that, “leaders listen to their soldiers complaints and take them seriously.”

These findings and concerns, echoed in a report released on Oct. 24 by the United States Senate National Guard Caucus Co-Chairs titled “On Medical Hold at Ft. Stewart, Georgia,” are receiving attention. The report’s findings confirm that, “the situation at Fort Stewart [has been] hampered by an insufficient number of medical [doctors] and specialists, which has caused excessive delays in the delivery of care.”

The Army’s use of housing for wounded and ill soldiers unsuitable for their medical condition further contributed to the problems.

“The fundamental problem, as summarized colorfully by one of the base commanders, is that soldiers are going through a “go slow medical review system while living in ‘get them the hell out of here barracks.'”

Additionally, the sick or injured were forced to fill leadership positions, “resulting in a situation where the sick and injured were leading the sick and injured.”

To add fuel to this fire, the report states “the perception among these [Reserve and Guard] soldiers is that the traditional active duty soldier is receiving better care, compounding an already deteriorating situation that had a devastating, negative impact on morale.” for these citizen soldiers.

Robinson and the report both express concern that these issues are not limited to Fort Stewart only. The Army has six primary sites and two secondary sites for medical hold processing. In coming weeks, Robinson will visit most of these facilities and report findings and recommendations back to the Senate.

Hopes are of finding a speedy resolution, and applying lessons learned applied to all of the MEB units. Until that happens, soldiers should alert their chain of command to their concerns.