Army wrestles with 'medical hold' issue
ARLINGTON, Va. — The Army’s medical infrastructure is the latest military institution to show the strain of large number of reservists mobilizing for overseas deployments, according to service officials.
The service is scrambling to provide adequate housing and care for Army Reserve and National Guard troops in “medical hold” status, which can be up to a year for individuals whose pre- or postdeployment exams reveal medical issues, or those who got sick or injured while overseas.
“You’d have to be nuts to deny [that large numbers of mobilizations] don’t stress the [medical] system,” said Barry Morris, a spokesman for U.S. Army Forces Command at Fort McPherson, Ga. “That doesn’t mean we can’t handle that stress; it just means we have to work harder.”
The medical hold issue was highlighted this weekend in a United Press International article about reservists and National Guard members at Fort Stewart, Ga., home of the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division, which returned from Iraq in September.
While acknowledging that the barracks where the Fort Stewart soldiers are staying “aren’t state of the art, by any means,” Morris said that reservists whose medical hold status has prevented them from deploying are often housed in the barracks vacated by deployed active-duty units.
When a unit such as the 3rd ID returns home, post officials may scramble to accommodate their medical hold soldiers, Morris said.
“The Army cannot afford enough infrastructure for the surge capacity of reserve and National Guard that would be mobilized at any post,” he said.
The article, which was released by the wire service on Friday, painted a bleak picture of “approximately 600 sick or injured members of the Army Reserves and National Guard … warehoused in rows of spare, steamy and dark cement barracks in a sandy field, waiting for doctors to treat their wounds or illnesses.”
Soldiers quoted in the article complained about being unable to make appointments with physicians in a timely manner, and of being treated as “second-class citizens,” compared to their active-duty colleagues.
Morris also strongly objected to the notion that the troops are being ignored because they are not active-duty.
“Everybody has equal access to health care down there,” he said. “Once the Reserve and National Guard are mobilized, we don’t make distinctions.”
Even as Army officials took issue with many of the article’s specific allegations, they were sufficiently concerned to send a team of investigators to Fort Stewart to check on conditions there, Army spokesman Maj. Steve Stover said Monday.
Army leaders were also scheduled to meet Monday with David Chu, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, to discuss the issue, according to Maj. Steve Stover, a spokesman for Army headquarters in the Pentagon.
The meeting was to include representatives from the offices of the Army chief of staff, the Army Surgeon General, the offices of Morale and Readiness and Installations and Management, and the Army National Guard and the Army Reserves, Stover said.
Reached by telephone Monday afternoon after repeated attempts throughout the morning, a Fort Stewart spokeswoman, Spc. Katherine Robinson, said that “the command is working on the official response” to the UPI article. Robinson was unable to provide further comment.
The Navy, meanwhile, has experienced no backlog of sailors and Marines seeking medical attention as a result of combat operations in Iraq or Afghanistan; neither has treating medical needs from the combat zone bumped, slowed or had an adverse impact on other patients seeking medical help, said Lt. John Schofield, a spokesman for the Navy’s Bureau of Medicine and Surgery.
— Stripes reporter Sandra Jontz contributed to this story from Washington.