The Army views complaints Oregon National Guard soldiers raised about the care they received at Madigan Army Medical Center last year as signs of systemic problems with how infantrymen are treated when they return from combat.
But Army officials refuse to detail how they are responding to those concerns.
The Army finished three reviews of the Oregon Guard’s complaints more than four months ago. It won’t release the full reports for at least another month, pending a final review of one of the documents, a spokeswoman for the Army Western Regional Medical Command said Friday.
Members of the Oregon National Guard complained in May that Madigan officials rushed them through the hospital and did not give them adequate attention after they completed a deployment in Iraq.
They were angered when they saw a slide from a Madigan training presentation that unfavorably compared National Guard soldiers with active-duty soldiers. It featured a trucker’s cap with the words “Weekend Warrior” to represent reserve soldiers.
Another slide suggested that some reserve soldiers might want to delay going home by staying at the hospital so they could continue receiving active-duty pay.
Those slights drew the attention of Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden and Congressman Kurt Schrader. The Oregon lawmakers prompted five generals to visit Madigan in May, where they pledged to investigate the complaints.
The Army Medical Command last week released a portion of the reports to The News Tribune in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.
Details are sparse in the pages The News Tribune reviewed, but they show that the Army considers the Guard’s complaints as indicative of broader challenges in caring for soldiers as they return to the states from deployments at what are called Soldier Readiness Processing (SRP) sites.
“I am convinced many of the (SRP) issues are systemic issues affecting SRP sites generally, which suffer from a lack of effective leadership, definitive training and guidance on the complicating and occasionally inconsistent guidance relevant to SRPs, the availability of treatment and benefits and the disposition of reserve component personnel,” wrote Maj. Gen. Philip Volpe, commander of the Western Regional Army Medical Command in an Oct. 5 memo.
Madigan officials have said over the past few months that they have implemented changes based on the reviews, but they are unwilling to describe the adjustments publicly until Volpe is able to outline his broader plan to improve care for soldiers coming back from combat.
The complaints came as Madigan built up its staff to care for more than 18,000 Joint Base Lewis-McChord soldiers who were returning from the Middle East in the spring and summer. More than 45,000 soldiers came home through Madigan in the previous year.
Madigan commander Col. Jerome Penner said in an October interview that the complaints from the Oregon Guard were an exception to the care the hospital usually provides.
Wyden spokesman Tom Towslee last week said the senator has not seen the investigative reports, but said that Wyden visited the hospital and was assured that Madigan took the Guard’s concerns seriously.
“They seemed very sincere about wanting to make changes. The last we heard was they had made changes,” Towslee said.
The partial report shows Army investigators were concerned about communication between the hospital and the National Guard unit, the 41st Infantry Brigade Combat Team.
“The senior leadership of the 41st IBCT departed Joint Base Lewis-McChord prior to their soldiers completion of the SRP process, which undermined efforts to identify and resolve process issues raised by redeploying soldiers,” Volpe said in an Oct. 5 memo.
One of the reports downplays the impact of the training slide that characterized National Guard soldiers as “weekend warriors,” an insult that inflamed the Oregon members of Congress and drew criticism from Army Surgeon General Eric Schoomaker.
“There was no credible evidence of malicious intent,” the report reads. “It is more likely that the slide was included to break up the monotony of a rather dry presentation. It does not appear that the slide had a significant impression on those in attendance.”
The report likewise says the other training slide that suggested National Guard soldiers might exaggerate their ailments wasn’t meant to be offensive.
“There was no evidence that inclusion of this slide in (the) presentation demonstrated a bias or prejudice against soldiers of the reserve components. Rather, the effect of this slide on the attendees appeared to be heightened awareness of this potential problems, but as an issue for all soldiers, rather than just the reserve components,” the report reads.
At some point, Madigan employees complained that Oregon soldiers verbally assaulted a hospital employee. Volpe struck that complaint from the final report, saying there wasn’t enough evidence to substantiate it.
Volpe’s memo echoes Penner’s past assertion that Madigan gives equal care to active-duty and reserve soldiers.
“I was further pleased to learn that there was no conclusion that any (Oregon Army National Guard) soldiers had been treated badly or disrespectfully by the (Madigan) personnel or health care providers,” Volpe wrote.
Volpe wrote that he intends to restructure the programs that treat soldiers as they return from combat by improving training and investing in facilities.
In denying the bulk of The News Tribune’s records request, The Army Surgeon General’s office cited an exemption in the Freedom of Information Act that allows the government to conceal documents that are intended to ensure the quality of medical care.
That denial covered two of the three reports. Volpe anticipated that exemption would apply to them.
He wrote at the end of two memos: “The entirety of this report and its exhibits will be characterized as quality assurance materials.”
Adam Ashton: 253-597-8646 email@example.com