Sunday, July 13, 2008

Slipping Through the Cracks

by Emily Stephens

Mike was an Army private stationed in Afganistan when it happened. TJ was in the Air Force, stationed stateside. Both soldiers were on the clock, working for their country when two acts of gross negligence changed their lives forever. Inhaling aircraft exhaust and other toxic fumes destroyed both men’s normal capacity to breathe.

TJ’s story happened almost eight years ago. Now he works as an Information Technology specialist for a research company who contracts with the government. A life once full of football, jogging, and motocross has been replaced by a face mask, nebulizer, and daily inhalations of the most powerful asmtha drugs on the market. That’s to say nothing about the pain. Nor the fact that at any minute he could lose the last 25% of his remaining lung capacity and, if lucky, wake up in an emergency room.

Every day is a struggle, especially during the spring when pollen pollutes Albuquerque’s usually clean air, thus making breathing unbearable. Has anyone ever apologized or even acknowledged the wrong-doing that led to his illness? Does the government subsidize TJ’s consistent loss of income when he is too ill to work? Does the military provide resources that will allow him to pick up the pieces of his life? The government “takes care” of TJ by offering him free medical care at the local veteran’s hospital. The buck stops there.

Mike’s story is disturbingly similar. He was subjected to unbearable amounts of toxic smoke without a mask. It wasn’t while he was fighting, or even out patroling the war-torn cities of Afganastan, but during his training. Army doctors insist he ‘developed asthma.’ It wasn’t until he visited a private practicioner that he learned he had lost almost 50% of his lung capacity. Now his days are spent with Albuterol close at hand and the constant fear that his inhaler simply won’t help. Last week, he and his wife spent 11 hours in the emergency room after steriods and his nebulizer failed.

These are just two individuals I met by sheer happenstance. It makes me wonder how big a problem there truly is about the gross negligence for the welfare of our soldiers. It bothers me that the military views human beings as “assets”. Words like “troops”, “soldiers”, and “warfighters” dehumanize these people. Body counts on the evening news have become almost meaningless, especially if photos and/or thoughts from their family aren’t included— anything to make them real now that they are gone.

According to the Seattle Post Intelligencer, “About 15 soldiers are wounded for every fatality in Iraq, compared with 2.6 in Vietnam and 2.8 in Korea. With those saved soldiers comes a financial price - one veterans groups and others claim the government is unwilling to pay. The Pentagon keeps 2 sets of books on injured GIs, and the VA will not request enough resources to care for the troops.”

CBS published an interview with Brig. Gen. Gary Cheek a few days ago (July 11, 2008). Cheek is responsible for organizing “Warrior Transition Units” or medical rehabilitation hospitals on various bases throughout the United States dedicated to treating wounded warriors so they can return home or back to the frontlines. After the government came under fire last year following the poor conditions exposed at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, the Army is going to great bounds to improve its overpopulated outpatient program. However, Cheek admits many soldiers aren't receiving the treatment they were promised. Much of the problem has to do with the sheer number of injured soldiers.

"About 12 percent were wounded in either Iraq or Afghanistan," Brig. Gen. Gary Cheek said. [Nonetheless], if you include those whose injuries could be called combat-related - a stressed-out soldier in a car accident after returning from Iraq, for instance - the percentage goes up to 48 percent. The rest have injuries or illnesses which have nothing to do with combat. As a result, the number of soldiers in Warrior Transition Units exploded from 6,000 to 12,000 - even as casualties in Iraq were going down. With the number of soldiers in transition units increasing by about 600 a month, the Army can't hire health care workers fast enough.

"By the time we got the ratio up to where it needed to be, we were probably 30-to-60 days behind what the population had already grown to," Cheek said. Last week the Army tightened the medical conditions that qualify a solider for a Warrior Transition Unit. And a new order requires all units to be fully staffed by Monday, but some aren't going to make it.

I hope the loyalty, which no longer seems to exist within the white and blue collar workplaces of today, is at least prevalent within our armed forces. Soldiers give their lives to organizations whose overall intent is noble, but something gets lost along the way, and so many slip through the cracks. Why must veterans fight for the care, respect, and benefits they have already earned? What happened to our loyalty and gratitude for their sacrifice?

Most absurd is the fact that TJ and Mike have no recourse. TJ admitted to signing his life away when he joined the Air Force. He agreed to never sue them. Never in his wildest dreams did he think he would ever need to. Like all enlisted soldiers, TJ believed the Air Force would take care of him. He believed they valued his life, and that he wouldn’t be viewed as an expendable ‘asset’. He never thought the meaningless orders to stand in an airplane hangar without a mask would destroy his hopes and dreams.

“I’m lucky,” he explains with persistant optimism. “I have an understanding employer. They are patient with me when I call in sick two or three times every week, or when I have to work from home.” There is concern in his voice, however. Every employer, no matter how kind, has limits to their flexibility, and his employer has been stretched thin on many occasions. “They try to understand, but I never stop worrying,” says TJ. “I could lose my job at any time, and they’d have every right to fire me.”

1 comment:

Paul Jeter said...

TJ I can help you and Mike.
Email me so we can talk.