A stretched Pentagon is sending unfit soldiers back to Iraq long before they are ready to serve again
April 3, 2004
By Suzanne Goldenberg in Washington
All Jason Gunn ever wanted was to be a soldier. He put on the uniform three days after high school graduation, and served six years with distinction. But in the last real conversation he had with his mother he swore he would never go back to Iraq.
The army specialist came within inches of death last November 15, when the Humvee he was driving hit a roadside bomb, killing his sergeant. The entire left side of Gunn's body was splattered with shrapnel, his elbow was shattered and, as he lay in the US military hospital bed in Germany, he was tortured by nightmares.
Late on March 23, Gunn told his mother, Pat, that his commanders were putting pressure on him to return to Iraq, but there was no way he was getting on that plane. A few hours later, he was airborne. This week, Gunn's distraught mother, who is herself a navy veteran, received a first official response to her demands to know why a soldier, who was being treated by military doctors for combat stress, was sent back to the war.
The note, which acknowledged Gunn suffered post-traumatic stress, said: "After discussion of his case it was determined ... this may be in his best interest mentally to overcome his fear by facing it. Therefore, he has been cleared for redeployment."
Gunn is not the only broken soldier being sent to battle. The Guardian has uncovered more than a dozen instances in which ill or injured soldiers were sent to war by a US military whose resources have been stretched near to breaking point by the simultaneous fronts in Afghanistan and Iraq. In its investigation, the Guardian learned of soldiers who were deployed with almost wilful disregard to their medical histories, and with the most cursory physical examinations. Soldiers went to war with chronic illnesses such as coronary disease, mental illness, arthritis, diabetes and the nervous condition, Tourette's syndrome, or after undergoing recent surgery.
One sergeant major was shipped out two months after neck surgery, despite orders from his military doctor for six months' rest. "The nurse told me to put my hands above my head and said you are good to go," he told the Guardian. A female supply sergeant said she was sent to Kuwait under medical advice not to walk more than half a mile at a time, or carry more than 50lb. Both had to be medically evacuated within weeks; the sergeant major required surgery on his return.
In some cases, the wounded were recycled with alarming speed. A mechanic, who suffered brain damage last June when his vehicle was hit by a suicide bus, was sent back to Iraq in October despite reported blurred vision and memory loss. He returned with his unit last month, and medical evaluations showed he had continued bleeding from the original head injury.
In Gunn's case, the determination to return him to battle is puzzling. His unit, the 1-37 Armoured Division, is due to return from Iraq in May. "They are sending an injured soldier back there for seven weeks. I can't for the life of me imagine why," says Ms Gunn. "They say they want him to go back and face his fears, but I just keep thinking what this whole thing will do to a person. What are they going to send home to us? Someone who is going to be on disability for the rest of their lives?"
All of the injured or ill soldiers knew of other unfit troops who were sent to Iraq last year, or have recently been redeployed. Some, who like Gunn suffered combat stress after sustaining serious injury, came under enormous pressure from their commanders to return to Iraq. Equally disturbing, a number of returning soldiers declared unfit for service told the Guardian the military had tried to force through their discharge to take them off the benefit rolls.
Such soldiers are almost never seen or heard from in a war now entering its second year, but their numbers are growing. The Pentagon's senior health official told Congress this week that the military had carried out 18,000 evacuations from Iraq of wounded or ill soldiers.
Meanwhile, 15,000 soldiers who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan have filed for disability claims. Some 12,000 have sought medical treatment from facilities run by the department of veterans affairs. About 4,600 have sought psychological counselling. That demand threatens to overwhelm a veterans' healthcare system that has received no new funding since the Iraq war began.
The drain on combat-ready soldiers - and the costs of carrying those damaged by this war - are becoming logistical nightmares for military planners. The Pentagon has already been forced to extraordinary measures. Last year, it locked up the service contracts of National Guard members and army reservists, preventing them from leaving the military when their time is up.
Gunn's commanders seem adamant on keeping him. On Wednesday, Ms Gunn was forwarded a statement from her son. "It is my wish to be redeployed with my unit to finish my tour of duty with my unit here in Iraq," the statement said. "I feel that I am able to complete my mission here as well as any other duties assigned to me while on current deployment." It also said he had discontinued his prescription. Ms Gunn is convinced the statement was coerced.
Veterans' advocates say Gunn's saga reflects a pattern in the Pentagon's dealings with casualties of the war: send them back to battle fast or get them off the military's books before their ailments drive costs up. "This is a particularly stressful time for the military because they have been committed far far beyond their capability, and that is the reason there is such pressure," says Stan Goff, a veterans' activist and writer. "The numbers are becoming more and more important. They have got to keep more bodies in theatre."
Battle readiness barely registers. Veronica Torres, a supply sergeant with 27 years service, was sent to Kuwait four months after toe surgery, and with previous injuries that restricted her movement. "Could I run? No. Could I jump in and out of trucks? No. Could I march a mile or two? No," she says.
She was there less than a week before reporting to sick bay. After being medically evacuated last July, she was diagnosed with diabetes and fibromyalgia.
Others who were evacuated for injury or illness say their real war started on their return - with the military bureaucracy.
Gerry Mosley, 49, a first sergeant in a transportation unit, was injured jumping off a truck that came under fire. By the time he was medically retired on March 17, he was taking 56 pills a day for shoulder, back and spinal conditions, post-traumatic stress disorder, and Parkinson's which was not diagnosed when he was shipped out.
Mosley also developed an abiding anger against an institution he served for 31 years, accusing the army of trying to shirk responsibility for his condition now he was surplus to requirements.
"I went to Iraq and fought the enemy, not knowing I was going to come back to the United States and fight a bigger enemy," he says.
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004