FORT LEWIS — Sgt. Lafi Afoa is at his wits’ end.
The mental and emotional trauma he experienced in Iraq left him with a sleep disorder and panic attacks upon his return home in late 2004. He has been in a medical-hold unit at Fort Lewis since June. He wants more tests but can’t get them scheduled.
He says he has given up on continuing his career in the Army and has had brief thoughts of suicide.
“I’m just frustrated,” he told a group of reporters Wednesday. “It’s just too overwhelming. It’s like they don’t care. They don’t want to take care of the soldiers. That’s my experience.”
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He is among the growing number of wounded active-duty and Reserve soldiers whose care has put Madigan Army Medical Center and other military hospitals under scrutiny.
Officials at Madigan and Fort Lewis showed reporters around the hospital Wednesday to explain and defend the care they provide.
They acknowledged that the recovery process isn’t problem-free and can be a source of frustration for wounded soldiers who may have to confront the end of their military careers, but they said they are delivering the best care possible.
“I’m sure while we have not met every single expectation from every soldier every time, I’m absolutely certain that we are doing a very, very good job in the vast majority of cases,” Brig. Gen. William Troy, deputy commander of I Corps and Fort Lewis, said at a news conference. “We realize that each case is different; each case must be given the time, attention and care it needs so that soldiers can recover and move on.”
Brig. Gen. Sheila Baxter, Madigan’s commander, and about a dozen “subject-matter experts” also attended the conference to answer reporters’ questions.
The conference came a day after the Army announced that inspectors will visit Madigan and 10 other hospitals nationwide. The announcement came after reports in The Washington Post highlighting problems in the outpatient care of wounded soldiers at the Army’s flagship hospital, Walter Reed Army Medical Center. President Bush has convened a bipartisan commission to investigate problems throughout the military’s health-care system.
Concerns were raised this week in stories published by Seattle newspapers about delays in outpatient treatment, indifferent caseworkers and the presence of asbestos in some of the rooms where wounded soldiers stay at Fort Lewis.
Fort Lewis officials said cracks in a fiberglass wrapping have exposed asbestos pipes in some rooms in the brick, World War II-era barracks that houses the medical-hold unit for active-duty soldiers.
The asbestos poses no danger, said Greg Opheim, Fort Lewis’ chief of industrial hygiene.
The renovation of the barracks, which has been planned for years, is set to begin soon, and the remaining soldiers will be moved to quarters elsewhere on the post.
There’s a separate medical-hold unit for National Guard and Reserve soldiers. There are 229 people now assigned to the active-duty and Reserve medical-hold units at Fort Lewis.
In the units, soldiers focus on treatment and recovery as a three-person physical-evaluation board decides whether they can return to duty. The board also decides what level of pay and benefits soldiers should receive if they are medically retired from duty.
Wounded Reserve soldiers have said they’ve been held away from home for months and even years as they’ve waited the process out.
Col. George Giacoppe Jr., deputy commander for clinic services at Madigan, acknowledged the problem but said the alternative is sending soldiers home to places without adequate medical facilities and treatment.
“Sometimes the choices are hard when it comes down to whether they stay or go,” he said. “To the extent that is possible, we look at their medical needs and what they want, where they want to be treated, and then we try to meet those needs.”
Reporters were given a tour of the barracks for both medical-hold units, and active-duty soldiers interviewed expressed their opinions about their treatment and living conditions.
Staff Sgt. Jeffrey Stottlemyer suffered a mild stroke during a deployment to South Korea and lost vision in his right eye. He’s assigned to the medical-hold unit as doctors try to prevent loss of vision in his left eye.
He shares his modest room with another wounded soldier but had no complaints about his living conditions. The room is filled with family pictures, three television sets and a collection of movies.
“They make it as comfortable as possible for us,” he said.
He said his roommate was treated at Walter Reed before coming to Madigan and described his treatment there as excellent.
“It’s not all the soldiers over there” at Walter Reed who have had problems; “it’s a few of the soldiers,” Stottlemyer said.
Staff Sgt. Javier Villanueva sat beside Afoa, the soldier unhappy with his treatment, during his interview.
Villanueva was shot in the leg while serving in Mosul, Iraq, in late 2004 and suffered nerve damage to his foot. He has been in the medical-hold unit for seven months.
He said he has received good care, although there have been delays in the scheduling of a surgery. He says other wounded soldiers have experienced delays going before the physical-evaluation board.
“I think they need more people,” he said. “It’s my understanding they’re swamped.”
After hearing Afoa’s comments to reporters, Madigan officials scheduled a hospital appointment to take care of his concerns, said Lt. Col. Dan Williams, Fort Lewis spokesman.