Immigrant doctors want to help the Army fight coronavirus. The Pentagon won’t let them.
By ALEX HORTON | The Washington Post | Published: March 25, 2020
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Dozens of immigrant physicians who enlisted through a Pentagon program meant to harness their medical skills are stuck taking out trash and filing paperwork, an immigration attorney said, even as the military mobilizes doctors to fight the growing coronavirus pandemic.
Six recruits with relevant training — a pulmonary specialist, an epidemiologist and two internal medicine practitioners, among others — are frustrated that the glacial pace of security checks has slowed their chance to serve at a crucial moment, they told The Washington Post.
The inertia comes as the nation braces for a mounting crisis of dwindling hospital staff as health-care workers contract the virus and are forced to quarantine, and the need for fresh physicians is so great that at least one medical school may graduate medical students early.
It is unclear if the military has enough doctors to treat its troops as the total number of infected service members rose to 258, the Pentagon said Wednesday, including some who recovered. Thomas McCaffery, the Pentagon’s top health official, warned Tuesday that the military health system is preparing for a “surge in demand.”
The growing urgency has left immigrant physicians who enlisted years ago desperate to serve in the Army as they wait for background checks to complete.
An internal medicine specialist, a doctor from India with a specialty in respiratory illnesses, said he has seen at least 40 patients with coronavirus in a New York City hospital. He enlisted in the Army in 2015 and mostly has sat around as a low-ranking dental specialist on drill weekends with little to do.
“I love to help people,” he told The Post. “But these hurdles are unnecessary. I’m wasting years of my medical experience in the Army.”
Like the other five recruits interviewed for this story, he declined to provide his name and some identifying details for fear of retribution from the U.S. government.
Those six recruits combined have spent 25 years on limited reserve duty as junior soldiers unable to use any of their medical skills in uniform.
The Pentagon did not return a request for comment, and the Army did not say how many immigrant physicians are still waiting to muster into the service.
The physicians enlisted in an immigrant recruitment program that traded fast-tracked citizenship for language and medical skills that the Pentagon identified as both vital to national security but in short supply among U.S.-born troops.
More than 10,000 skilled immigrants entered the military in the past decade, mostly for their linguistic skills. The program shuttered in 2017 amid security concerns and heightened background checks that stalled the process for years.
At least several dozen physicians are still waiting for their checks to finish. They busy themselves with menial tasks at their reserve units, where they have limited duties, said retired Army officer Margaret Stock, the architect of the program and an immigration attorney who has represented physician recruits.
The military has consistent physician shortages, a 2018 Government Accountability Office report found, and it is unclear whether the Pentagon has enough doctors to manage a ballooning health emergency.
“The nation is facing a crisis when we need these people,” Stock said. “It was the point of recruiting them in the first place.”
The Army ordered three active-duty Army medical units to New York and Washington State on Tuesday to add hospital capacity in the two states hit hardest by coronavirus, highlighting the force’s growing use of its medical professionals.
The Military Accessions Vital to National Interest program was championed by Special Operations Command for its stream of language and cultural experts who could aid them in unconventional missions, a Pentagon overview of the program said.
It also helped the Army Reserve fill many dental jobs, a vital task because dentists must be available to clear soldiers for combat deployments. By 2017, two-thirds of Army reservist dentists came through the program.
But the pipeline closed that year following new stringent regulations and enhanced background checks, leading some to trickle in through thickets of bureaucracy.
One of them, a pulmonologist from the Middle East, treated veterans at a VA hospital, trained medical students, and in 2016, enlisted in the Army to provide his expertise in uniform.
He sits on the coronavirus response board at his Georgia hospital. “Respiratory failure is where my expertise begins,” he told The Post. “I take care of the sickest of the sick.”
He and the other physicians are in a reserve status that allows basic access to Army installations and limited responsibilities, but they have not been fully processed for basic or officer training.
He came to the U.S. a decade ago, but his enlistment coincided with new, stringent background checks that delayed hundreds of recruits from completing the enlistment process, turning the reliable stream of recruits into a flurry of lawsuits, asylum claims and fears of deportation.
The process dragged out for years, he said, until last week, when he was given an unfavorable determination for having foreign family members, even though he was naturalized — part of a pattern of canceled enlistments and failed screenings for fact-of-life events and, often, simply for existing as foreigners.
He was given 30 days to provide a rebuttal for the determination, which does not yet mean he is denied a chance to serve.
“It was not my choice to be born in a different country,” he said. “I don’t know what I need to do to prove my allegiance.”
An internal medicine specialist in Louisiana — who said he has treated nearly two dozen coronavirus patients this week alone — has faced similar hurdles. He enlisted in 2016 and was naturalized, but he also was given an unfavorable determination because he often speaks to his foreign-born father.
His reserve duty mostly has involved classes and occasionally trash-removal duty typical of junior soldiers, not physicians. “For more than four years, I’m sitting and doing nothing,” he said.
Immigrant physician recruits typically join the Army Reserve, and primarily would treat other soldier members unless they were mobilized to assist in a public health response.
The Defense Department has failed to identify and place talented troops into jobs that harness their abilities, said Paul Scharre, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and a former policy analyst at the Pentagon.
“The military has done an unequivocally horrible job tapping into skills,” he said. But with MAVNI, “we know adding these people would make a difference.”
A Chinese epidemiologist in California echoed the sentiment. He enlisted in 2016 and was naturalized but has yet to move forward as an officer, spending time cleaning facilities as a cook at his selected reserve unit.
“I have skills and I can help,” he said. “I feel useless.”