Sunday, February 10, 2008

Document Shows Army Blocked Help for Soldiers

Document Shows Army Blocked Help for Soldiers

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A document from the Department of Veterans Affairs contradicts an assertion made by the Army surgeon general that his office did not tell VA officials to stop helping injured soldiers with their military disability paperwork at a New York Army post.

The paperwork can help determine health care and disability benefits for wounded soldiers.

Last week, NPR first described a meeting last March between an Army team from Washington and VA officials at Fort Drum Army base in upstate New York. NPR reported that Army representatives told the VA not to review the narrative summaries of soldiers' injuries, and that the VA complied with the Army's request.

The day the NPR story aired, Army Surgeon General Eric B. Schoomaker denied parts of the report. Rep. John McHugh (R-NY), who represents the Fort Drum area, told North Country Public Radio, that "The Surgeon General of the Army told me very flatly that it was not the Army that told the VA to stop this help."

Now, NPR has obtained a four-page VA document that contradicts the surgeon general's statement to McHugh. It was written by one of the VA officials at Fort Drum on March 31, the day after the meeting. The document says Col. Becky Baker of the Army Surgeon General's office told the VA to discontinue counseling soldiers on the appropriateness of Defense Department ratings because "there exists a conflict of interest."

When contacted by NPR, Baker referred an interview request to the Army Surgeon General's spokeswoman. The spokeswoman rejected requests for interviews with Baker and Schoomaker.

The document says that before the Army team's visit, people from the Army Inspector General's office came to Fort Drum and told the VA it was providing a useful service to soldiers by reviewing their disability paperwork.

According to the document, joining Baker on the Army team at the Fort Drum meeting was Dr. Alan Janusziewicz. He retired as deputy assistant surgeon general for the Army in October.

"I was part of the team, and I was probably instrumental in the surgeon general denying that the Army had instructed the VA" to stop reviewing soldiers' Army medical documents, Janusziewicz told NPR in a phone interview.

Janusziewicz says he has no memory of Baker telling the VA to stop helping soldiers with their military paperwork. In fact, he says, he thought the VA at Fort Drum was doing the best job of any base he visited. But he also says his recollection of the meeting is spotty, since it took place almost a year ago.

"I believe that document is more likely to represent a miscommunication of intent between what Col. Baker was trying to get across and what folks on the receiving end of that communication likely heard," Janusziewicz said.

The document describing the meeting at Fort Drum says the primary purpose for the visit was to "ensure that there are no other 'Walter Reed' situations at other Army installations." That's a reference to the scandal at Walter Reed Army hospital in Washington, which detailed reports of neglect of soldiers recovering from injuries sustained in Iraq and Afghanistan.

According to the document, Rosie Taylor, who recently retired as Fort Drum's Disability Program manager, described soldiers at the base in conditions of squalor and neglect. In an interview on Wednesday, Taylor described "soldiers crawling on their bellies to go to the bathroom, or soldiers who'd had surgery who couldn't go to chow because they had no way to get there."

The document says one soldier was bedridden for three days without a change of clothes or meal. Taylor says nobody listened to her complaints until the Walter Reed scandal.

"Every time I walked into a meeting before, it was like 'Oh my God, there goes $70,000.' And after Walter Reed hit the fan, it was like I was getting phone calls, 'Rosie we're doing over a building and we need your advice on access,'" Taylor says.

Taylor says the accessibility problems have generally been solved.

She doesn't remember whether the Army told the VA to stop helping soldiers with their disability paperwork. But she will say this about Fort Drum's VA workers: "They stand on their heads for soldiers. They put their jobs on the line for soldiers. They don't care if they're not supposed to do something; if a soldier needs something done, they do it anyway."

Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) has already asked the Army to investigate the situation at Fort Drum. She called the allegations in last week's report "deeply disturbing."

Whether the situation at the Army base is a result of poor communication, poor memory or something else altogether, the result is the same: For the last year, hundreds of disabled soldiers at Fort Drum have received less help with their disability paperwork than the soldiers who came before them.

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