Fort Lewis focuses on wounded

FORT LEWIS - Army inspectors beginning Monday will open a special office at Fort Lewis to investigate complaints by wounded and injured National Guard and reserve soldiers there.

The top generals at Fort Lewis and Madigan Army Medical Center have also ordered a series of other changes to address soldiers frustrations about their treatment in medical holding companies and the complex administrative process to evaluate their fitness for duty.

The moves by Lt. Gen. James M. ­Dubik and Brig. Gen. Sheila Baxter followed a meeting Monday with a number of wounded and injured soldiers. Participants said soldiers poured out their frustrations at the general officers.

"We did listen to what was at times both emotional and angry reports," Dubik said in an e-mailed response to questions from The News Tribune. "I'm their commander; they have a right to report the facts to me.

"All was done respectfully, and we had a good dialogue."

Meantime, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Schoomaker made a brief visit to Fort Lewis on Thursday and met with Baxter at Madigan. Dubik is at Central Command headquarters in Florida.

"(Schoomaker) wanted to make sure we had the resources to improve the system," Baxter said in an interview Friday. "He said we want to be sure were not putting Band-Aids on the issue, but that we look at this as a life-building process. ... We're going to put the resources there to fix it."

Dubik and Baxter have put in place a number of immediate changes and asked their respective commanders at the U.S. Army Forces Command and the U.S. Army Medical Command for staff and money to build a pilot program for the rest of the Army to follow.

The measures include:

By Friday, Baxter said all soldiers in the posts medical holding units who previously couldn't get access to their medical records had copies made for them. Some soldiers said they'd been denied copies when they asked; Baxter said soldiers are entitled to have their records, but procedures for obtaining them weren't clear to all.

The generals also promised soldiers could have their cases reviewed with a doctor and a lawyer.

Baxter said Madigan over the next 30-60 days will create a clinic exclusively for soldiers hurt in Iraq or Afghanistan or while serving on homeland security missions in the United States. It will start with two doctors and a physician's assistant or nurse-practitioner.

For two weeks beginning Monday a team from the Fort Lewis Inspector Generals office as well as two officers from the National Guard IGs headquarters in Washington, D.C., will open up shop at the Fort Lewis medical holdover company for injured guardsmen and reservists.

Inspector Generals have the authority to investigate complaints, conduct audits, recommend administrative changes and refer cases to commanders and Army lawyers for possible disciplinary action.

Also Friday, sources said the Army has temporarily suspended cases before the services physical evaluation boards in which soldiers are seeking disability ratings for post-traumatic stress disorder, injuries that limit range of motion in their backs and limbs, sleep apnea and a number of other conditions.

The boards known in the Army as PEBs determine whether an injured soldier is fit to return to duty, and if not, assess how to compensate them for their disability.

Soldiers have complained the PEBs unfairly discount the effects of their injuries, often releasing them from the Army with modest severance payments, no military medical coverage and a disability that makes it difficult to find a decent civilian job.

The Army Times has reported that during the past five years the services PEBs have granted medical disability retirement with monthly compensation and lifetime medical benefits to dramatically fewer soldiers despite substantial numbers of wounded and injured troops from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Fort Lewis is home to one of four Army PEBs and handles hundreds of cases each month from installations across the western United States.

Internal documents obtained by The News Tribune indicate senior attorneys at Fort Lewis and across the PEB system are debating changes. They are responding to the increased congressional and media scrutiny that has followed the Walter Reed Army Medical Center scandal.

Lawyers who represent soldiers before the boards are arguing for more and earlier legal representation for injured soldiers, reform of the way PEB appeals are heard, and better training for the liaison officers who are supposed to help soldiers understand the process.

PEB lawyers are also arguing over changes in the way the Army rates disabilities compared with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, about the way the PEBs consider a soldier's medical condition before he or she joined the Army, and the way psychiatric injuries, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, are evaluated.

The PEB at Fort Lewis is outside the chain of command of both Dubik, the post commander, and Baxter, the Madigan commander. Baxter said she has met with the board president, Col. John O'Sullivan, and that he is aware of the frustrations soldiers are describing.