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ARLINGTON, Va. — The Pentagon isn’t skirting the law when it comes to assessing deployed servicemembers’ health — just some processes take longer than others to put into place, one Pentagon official said.

Representatives from veterans’ organizations testified before Congress last week, accusing the Pentagon’s Health Affairs Department and the services of failing to adequately keep tabs on troops who deploy, especially to combat zones where possible exposure to chemical and biological weapons, or the vaccinations designed to protect them, might pose serious health risks.

They accused the Pentagon’s leadership of violating Public Law 105-85 — which, in part, calls for servicemembers to receive medical exams, including mental health exams, before and after deployment.

“Unfortunately, DOD’s current implementation of this provision of the law does not, in our opinion, fulfill this requirement,” Peter Gaytan, from The American Legion, told members of the Health Subcommittee of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs on Thursday.

“In lieu of thorough pre- and postdeployment medical examination as required by law, DOD has deploying and returning servicemembers fill out brief health questionnaire,” said Gaytan, whose comments were mirrored by representatives from organizations such as Disabled American Veterans and Paralyzed Veterans of America.

The two-page questionnaires are only part of the assessment process, said Ellen Embrey, chief of the Pentagon’s Deployment Health Support Directorate. Critics of the process focus on the surveys alone, and fail to take in the big picture, Embrey said.

“We’re very sensitive about this … and it’s disheartening to have that kind of testimony,” Embrey said in an interview. “This form is one of many other forms individuals are filling out. The folks testifying are saying the form is not enough. But they’re not putting into context the medical readiness processing … and the multiple ways in which this is being accomplished.”

Before servicemembers deploy, the members and officials scan medical and emergency contact records — ensuring DNA samples are on file, blood types are listed accurately and all pertinent information is updated, Embrey said. Pregnancy tests are done before deployments to combat situations, she said.

She detailed the evaluation process at Fort Benning, Ga., and listed the 10 medical stations deploying servicemembers must visit:

• Intake briefing.• Medical screening to ensure all information is up-to-date, including physicals and DNA collection, pregnancy tests and immunization records.• Laboratory if blood needs to be drawn.• Dental.• Optometry.• Briefings about immunizations, including smallpox and anthrax if applicable.• An actual immunization station if shots are needed.• Mental health assessment.• An administrative station.• An outprocessing station.

Fort Benning, however, is one of the more proactive installations, and troops deploying from smaller bases might not receive such an exhaustive process, she said. What lacks focus now is the postdeployment assessment, Embrey said, and that’s something officials are working on.

“Once they come out of theater, they want to go home and don’t want to be held up going through medical screening,” Embrey said. “There’s a balance we’re trying to find that will get them to go home quickly, but disclose the health issues and go through a thorough assessment at the exact time they return.”


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