PTSD and the VA: A Disservice to Disabled Troops

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In an editorial opinion published in the New York Times on May 26th entitled ”

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The Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs have repeatedly promised to do a better job of handling the medical evaluations of wounded and disabled service members. Instead, they are doing worse.

The processing of disability cases is getting slower, not faster. Efforts to ensure a “seamless transition” out of the military are falling short. Men and women are languishing without treatment, struggling to readjust to civilian lives as they cope with post-traumatic stress disorder, brain injuries, drug addiction and other service-related afflictions. The system that should be producing reliable results is mired in delays and dissatisfaction.

A new report by the Government Accountability Office lays out the problem. In 2007, the two departments began combining their separate, complicated and cumbersome processes for disability evaluations into one system. The system is now in place worldwide, and officials from both departments promised the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee a year ago that it had become “more transparent, consistent and expeditious.”

But the accountability office found otherwise. It said processing times for disability cases had actually gone up — to an average of 394 days for active-duty troops and 420 days for National Guard members and reservists in 2011, well over the departments’ goals of 295 and 305 days. In fiscal year 2010, 32 percent of active-duty troops and 37 percent of Guard and Reserve troops completed evaluations and received benefits within established timelines. Last year, those figures fell to a dismal 19 percent and 18 percent.

What’s going on? The report says the causes are not fully understood, but it points to persistent staffing shortages, problems in collecting and reporting data, and differences among the service branches and between the Pentagon and the Veterans Affairs Department in the way cases are diagnosed and tracked. The accountability office says it will make recommendations later this year as it sees whether promised improvements are taking hold, including a hiring push by the Army — a huge source of processing bottlenecks — and the V.A.

Senator Patty Murray, chairman of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, deserves credit for focusing attention on these and other failings in a series of hearings, including one last Wednesday that examined the bureaucratic delays. She also used the hearing to bring up disturbing reports that doctors at an Army base in Washington State had repeatedly — and wrongly — rejected soldiers’ legitimate post-traumatic stress disorder claims.

Wounded and disabled service members should not be forced to wait endlessly without treatment or benefits while the government evaluates their injuries. Nor should they have to battle their own government for honest treatment. The evaluations should be accurate, not consistently wrong. Ms. Murray noted on Wednesday that there were about 27,000 military personnel in the system, three times the number in 2010. Many more are on the way. “Clearly, much work remains to be done,” she said. She is right. There is no excuse for more backsliding and delay.

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Enough “lip service” as Hack would say.  Let’s rollup our sleeves and help these brave heroes.

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Military News Highlights: December 10, 2010

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Report: Growing mental health problems in military

Never knew that the Department of Defense publishes a Medical Surveillance report , but even without the findings everyone knows that mental health problems are the number one health issue facing our troops.  That’s a no-brainer. The November report highlighted in this story by CNN points out the fact that mental health issues send male troops to the hospital than any other cause, and are the second highest for hospitalization amongst women troopers. “The Army was relatively most affected (based on lost duty time) by mental disorder-related hospitalizations overall; and in 2009, the loss of manpower to the Army was more than twice that to the Marine Corps and more than three times that to the other Services,” the report says. “The Army has had many more deployers to Afghanistan and Iraq and many more combat-specific casualties; it is not surprising, therefore, that the Army has endured more mental disorder-related casualties and larger manpower losses than the other services.”

 With some patience you can navigate to the MS Report site and review a decades worth of reports – rather startling data.  Consider that there is data that tracks the numbers of deaths (and by cause) within two years after

 Insecurity and Violence Spreads to Northern Afghanistan

Whack-a-mole.  Surge in the south, leave open the north.  Whack-a-mole. Reposition in the north, enemy withdraws south.  Whack-a-mole. NATO has called this “an extreme escalation” of militant activity.  Actually, it’s a simple supply and demand problem and an economy of force issue.  What was once a gunfight that only involved the Afghan provinces in the east to the south in Afghanistan is now a 360 degree fight, where all areas  require more US/NATO forces are evident to the threat and being exploited.  Coupled with criminality and a lackluster Afghan government, the northern (and western) provinces in Afghanistan have become a vacuum for the enemy to operate in with impunity.  Limiting their operations outside of major urban centers the Taliban and their confederates have been able to provide an alternative to the local populace for services, justice, and security, which “allows the instability to spread.”

 Sad to say that the only real option without any operational or strategic effect is to “whack-a-mole”.  In other words hit the enemy wherever and whenever they emerge – problem is, it’s apparent that there are insufficient US/NATO troops to cover and respond to the threat, and Afghan National Security Forces lack the capability to respond in kind as well.

 Following Up: When A Crew Chief Fights With His Rifle

 Warms your heart when you get to read about courage amidst the carnage, especially when these humble acts are by combat medic crew chiefs.

The award recommendation is below:

SGT Grayson Colby, United States Army, distinguished himself by extraordinary courage and dedication to the MEDEVAC mission on 01 June 2010, in support of Regional Combat Team 7 in Regional Command Southwest during Operation Enduring Freedom 10.

While performing MEDEVAC duty at Camp Dwyer, the crew of DUSTOFF 56 (Pilot in Command CW2 Deric Sempsrott, Pilot CPT Matthew Stewart, Crew Chief SGT Colby, and Flight Medic SGT Ian Bugh) conducted MEDEVAC mission 06-01R in central Marjeh. A dismounted patrol of Marines had come under fire, and one Marine was shot in the upper thigh. Within minutes DO56 launched from Camp Dwyer, knowing they were headed for a high threat area. No escort was available due to the multiple troops-in-contact ongoing across Helmand. The Marine would surely die if not evacuated quickly, so the crews acknowledged the risk and were authorized to launch.

As DO56 approached the point of injury, a firefight erupted on three sides of the aircraft. With no aircraft providing cover, the crew continued to the ground without hesitation, determined not to abandon the wounded. Seeing the location from which the friendly forces were engaging the enemy, SGT Bugh and SGT Colby exited the aircraft from the right door where the largest contingent of the Marine patrol was engaging the enemy.

As the two crewmembers egressed from the aircraft, a Marine came out of the tree line in front of them and signaled for them to stay low. SGT Bugh and SGT Colby sprinted 50 meters across the open field toward the Marine’s position where the patrol was locked in an engagement with the enemy. Reaching the raised road where the Marines were taking cover, SGT Bugh found that the unit had no means to transport the injured Marine and returned to the aircraft for a litter. SGT Colby immediately took a defensive position alongside the Marines and began to engage the enemy. With rounds cracking above his head and hitting the dirt around him, SGT Colby returned fire to the muzzle flashes that were approximately 200 to 300 feet in front of him.

When SGT Bugh returned to where SGT Colby was providing covering fire, they bounded as a team down the raised road with the firefight continuing around them. Reaching the wounded Marine, SGT Colby took his place in the line of Marines, replacing one who had left his position to aid his buddy. Again, SGT Colby returned fire with enemy rounds hitting around him. SGT Bugh and three other Marines carried the litter while SGT Colby remained in his position until they were clear of the road. He than followed them down the road providing rear security until reaching the aircraft. With the patient loaded and SGT Bugh and SGT Colby secure, DO56 departed towards Camp Dwyer. Once airborne, SGT Colby assisted SGT Bugh by starting oxygen on the wounded Marine as the aircraft raced back to the Dwyer Role II Hospital. The Marine went through intensive surgery at the hospital prior to being transferred to a higher level of care.

SGT Colby’s disregard for his own safety as he left the security of the aircraft to provide cover for SGT Bugh embodies the Warrior Ethos. His bravery resulted in a Marine’s life being saved. SGT Colby’s actions reflect great credit on himself, TF Shadow, TF Destiny, and the United States Army.

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U.S. Government Loses FOIA Ruling on Body Armor Records

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Thanks to superb pro bono legal representation by a team from the NYC office of Kirkland & Ellis, LLC, a federal district judge has issued his ruling on SFTT’s editor’s request under the Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) for forensic records held by the Department of Defense regarding the performance of government-issued body armor. The ruling was characterized in the following way by a news service covering legal issues:

U.S. Loses FOIA Ruling on Body Armor Records

 (CN) – A federal judge in Washington, D.C., ordered the Army’s medical examiner to release information about the effectiveness of body armor used by U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan or to justify the decision to withhold it.   (For the complete Courthouse News article, see: http://www.courthousenews.com/2010/08/16/29630.htm )       

As supporters of SFTT know, we have, to no avail, for several years requested that these records be reviewed by the appropriate oversight bodies of the US Congress. It was only after this baffling refusal that SFTT’s editor requested the records under the FOIA. To no one’s surprise, DOD denied SFTT’s request.   Under the brilliant guidance and with the incredible support of Kirkland & Ellis’ NYC office, SFTT’s editor filed a new request, and that request was basis for the complaint in federal district court upon which the judge issued this ruling.    

In preliminary filings DOD admitted that for the two calendar years (2006 and 2007) for which records were requested 103 KIA’s died from ballistic wounds to the torso. It further admitted that only 51 of these 103 KIA’s (49.5%) had body armor plates shipped back to the US for forensic examination,  and that these 51 KIA’s had a total of 155 plates returned with the “service members.”

Of these 51 KIA’s, 18 had “body armor description sheets with information responsive” to the SFTT editor’s FOIA request. (By DOD’s own definition, a “body armor description sheet” indicates that the “body armor is not perfectly intact.”)

Assuming that only one body armor protective plate was struck in each KIA’s tactical engagement, that means that a staggering 35.3% (18 of 51) of the plates were “not perfectly intact.”       

It’s hard to imagine that DOD would not release these records if they proved that although 35% of the KIA’s during the specified two-year period for whom even fairly complete records exist had “not perfectly intact” plates, not a single KIA resulted from penetration of the plates.

 

So, why has DOD not released the responsive records, i.e., the Firearm Wound Charts and body armor description sheets?

Roger Charles

Editor SFTT

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Weapon Jamming Reported in Afghanistan

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SFTT has had a single report from a credible source that a unit in Afghanistan has problems — jamming — with their government issued magazines for their 5.56mm weapons.    These single-spring magazines are jamming in Afghanistan firefights and some believe these government-issued magazines are inferior to the double-spring magazines currently available  commercially.

These problems appear to be due to the single-spring magazines not having sufficient force to work when exposed to sand, dirt, etc. — that is common during normal tactical conditions encountered in a firefight.  The commercially purchased magazines provided by family/friends back in the U.S. have a double-spring design, and the additional force provided by the second spring results in far fewer jams.

SFTT is asking for readers to actively inquire from contacts with frontline troops to see if this problem is an isolated one, or whether it is more widespread.   Please respond to the Editor of SFTT with as much detail as you can provide: specific weapon, tactical situation, etc. (Confidentiality is guaranteed to all respondents. SFTT will require information sufficient to  confirm validity of reports.)

Roger Charles

Editor and Senior Investigative Reporter

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GAO Recommendations on Body Armor Testing

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To determine what effect, if any, the problems GAO observed had on the test data and on the outcomes of First Article Testing, the Army should provide for an independent ballistics evaluation of the First Article Testing results by ballistics and statistical experts external to the Department of Defense before any armor is fielded to soldiers under this contract solicitation. Because DOD did not concur with this recommendation, GAO added a matter for congressional consideration to this report suggesting that Congress direct DOD to either conduct such an independent external review of these test results or repeat First Article Testing.

 

To better align actual test practices with established testing protocols during future body armor testing, the Army should assess the need to change its test procedures based on the outcome of the independent experts’ review and document these and all other key decisions made to clarify or change the testing protocols during future body armor testing. Although DOD did not agree that an independent expert review of test results was needed, DOD stated it will address protocol discrepancies identified by GAO as it develops standardized testing protocols. DOD also agreed to document all decisions made to clarify or change testing protocols.

 

[NB: DOD quietly dropped its opposition to this GAO recommendation and an “independent experts’ review” of Army/DOD ballistic test protocols has started. One retired Army general was assigned to the panel, raising some doubt as to just how “independent” this panel truly is.]

To improve internal controls over the integrity and reliability of test data for future testing as well as provide for consistent test conditions and comparable data among tests, the Army should provide for an independent external peer review of Aberdeen Test Center’s body armor testing protocols, facilities, and instrumentation to ensure that proper internal controls and sound management practices are in place. DOD generally concurred with this recommendation, but stated that it will also include DOD members on the review team.

[NB: Quoting from footnote 1, page 77 of the GAO report: “… the most current Army Test Operating Procedure for testing body armor had not been updated since 1975. Test Operations Procedure (TOP), 10-2-506 Ballistic Testing of Personnel Armor Materials. So there it is in all its unvarnished ugliness — another key indicator of just how little the Army’s Leadership and defense contractors value the American Grunt. For testing life-or-death gear, i.e., personal protective equipment, use a 35-year old set of test protocols. Then, when forced by public pressure to address the issue, in typical Washington fashion, appoint a panel, a commission, “to study” the issue. How long will this study will take, and how many warriors will fall on the killing fields while the scandalous situation is being “studied” are two issues blithely ignored in this GAO report.]

Roger Charles

Editor and Senior Investigative Reporter for SFTT

Review the GAO Report: http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d10119.pdf

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GAO Report Slams Body Armor Test Procedures

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The October, 2009 Government Accountability Office (“GAO”) Report to Congressional Requesters, titled “Independent Expert Assessment of Army Body Armor Test Results and Procedures Needed Before Fielding,” contains this devastating observation:

“Due to these deviations [from approved testing protocols], the majority of which seem to make the testing easier to pass and favor the vendors, we continue to believe that it is necessary to have an independent external expert review the results of First Article Testing and the overall effect of DOD’s deviations on those results before the plates are fielded.”

The GAO study confirms what SFTTand others have been saying for several years:  Flawed test procedures and the failure of the US Army to apply their own test protocols fairly and impartially has likely resulted in inferior body armor for US troops serving in harm’s way.    No wonder the Pentagon and its congressional enablers have tried to pretend that the report says something different from what GAO wrote into the official record.

In subsequent News updates for SFTT, I will cite specific examples as to why the GAO report is so devastating to the US Army and the Department of Defense and how contractors have generally been favored to the detriment of the safety of our frontline soldiers.

Roger Charles

SFTT Editor

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