Development & Aid, Headlines, Health, North America

HEALTH-US: Soldier’s Death Highlights Medical Staff Shortages

Aaron Glantz

SAN FRANCISCO, Oct 17 2007 (IPS) - On Sep. 19, Kay McMullen had the last conversation she ever would with her son, Gerald Cassidy, or G.J., as he was known to his family and friends.

Sgt. Gerald "G.J." Cassidy Credit: Cassidy Family

Sgt. Gerald "G.J." Cassidy Credit: Cassidy Family

A sergeant in the Indiana National Guard, G.J. had been injured in Iraq by a roadside bomb in June 2006. He returned to the U.S. five months ago, and was receiving inpatient medical care through the “Wounded Warrior Transition Programme” at Fort Knox, Kentucky.

As they talked on the phone, the 32-year-old father of two complained of flashbacks brought on by maintenance work being done on his building at Fort Knox. The base’s staff was replacing the shingles on the roof above his dorm room, and every time a new shingle went up or an old one was ripped off he felt like a bomb was going off.

He told his mom he hadn’t slept in days.

Then two days passed, and neither Kay McMullen nor G.J.’s wife Melissa had heard a word from him. The silence was eerie. G.J was bored at Fort Knox and called them three or four times a day. He almost always answered his phone and told them many times he couldn’t wait for his medical hold to end, so that he could get back to Indiana, where he planned to help raise his children and re-enter the civilian workforce as a high school teacher.

G.J.’s family knew something was wrong. At 8 a.m. on Friday, Sep. 21, they called Fort Knox, trying to reach anyone who might be willing to go up to G.J.’s third floor room to check and see if he was alright.

Eleven hours later, a soldier entered Cassidy’s room and found him sitting in a chair dead.

Indiana Senator Evan Bayh, along with G.J.’s family, is now demanding that the Army answer questions about his death, and why he had apparently not seen a doctor in several days.

In a letter sent last week to Army Secretary Pete Geren, Bayh wrote that the soldier had “received substandard medical treatment while in the Army’s care.”

“I ask that you share with me the Army’s decision-making process behind sending Sgt. Cassidy to Fort Knox for treatment,” Bayh wrote. “Was this an appropriate facility? Also, what steps are being taken by the Army to determine the circumstances surrounding his tragic death?…How often are wounded soldiers put into situations similar to that of Sgt. Cassidy? How might the current inadequacies of the Warrior Transition Unit programme have contributed to his death? How might a properly functioning programme have prevented it?”

An independent autopsy paid for by Cassidy’s family concluded that he had been dead for hours before his body was found, and in fact may have been unconscious for days.

The Army is now looking into his death, but results from a military autopsy could take several weeks.

“This is something that is serious to Fort Knox and to the Army,” Base spokeswoman Connie Shaffery told the Associated Press after Cassidy’s family complained to the media.

“Every aspect of his death is being investigated,” she added

But Cassidy’s family isn’t satisfied with the Army’s response.

“He died from lack of care,” Kay McMullen tearfully told IPS. “He came back from Iraq, and the Army killed him.”

According to Cassidy’s family, the medical ward at Fort Knox was so understaffed that G.J. was lucky to have one doctor’s appointment and one psychiatric appointment a month. His symptoms were consistent with a brain injury, including severe headaches, hearing loss and fainting spells.

“The young men, including him sometimes, would go and sit in chairs all day outside their doctor’s office waiting for a chance that someone wouldn’t show up for an appointment or if he could fit them in for a few minutes between appointments,” McMullen said.

Most of the time, she said, her son was left alone in his third floor room, where he sat unattended playing games on his X-Box and laptop computer.

One time he passed out in his room by himself and woke up three or four hours later and was lying in a pool of blood that he said had come from his mouth or his nose.

“He blacked out and fell forward and something in his head started bleeding. He doesn’t know what, he was unconscious,” McMullen told IPS.

“Another time, he was climbing the steps to his third floor dormitory and he blacked out and hit his head against the wall and had abrasions all over his forehead. They knew that and they still let him stay in this third floor room by himself with no buddy system, no hospitalisation, no nothing” she said.

“They let a young man who had passed out in his room in a pool of blood, who had passed out and hit a wall,” Cassidy’s mother raged, “They let a young man like that live in a dormitory room all by himself and when he didn’t show up for (daily) roll call nobody went up to check on him for at least two and a half days. It’s criminal negligence.”

Cassidy’s death is raising new questions about the quality of care wounded U.S. soldiers receive after they return home. It comes on the heels of a new report by the non-partisan Government Accountability Office slamming the Pentagon’s treatment of wounded veterans.

According to the GAO, “46 percent of the Army’s returning service members who were eligible to be assigned to a (medical) unit had not been assigned due in part to staffing shortages.”

The GAO report found Fort Knox’s medical facilities were severely short-staffed, but they weren’t even the worst in the country.

Over half of the military’s special “Wounded Warrior Transition Units” had staffing shortfalls of more than 50 percent. Key bases like Fort Lewis in Washington and Fort Carson in Colorado were short massive numbers of doctors, nurses, and squad leaders. “The GAO report also found that the Army is not properly screening and treating soldiers with TBI (traumatic brain injury), due in part to staffing shortfalls,” Sen. Bayh noted in his letter. “I am aware that the Army has established policies to provide training on TBI to all of its nurse case managers and psychiatric nurses, among others. Yet as of Sep. 13, 2007, only 6 of the Army’s 32 Warrior Transition Units had completed TBI training for all staff.”

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