Military Keeps Poor Health Records on Troops
By Robert Tomsho, 4 February 2004
The Wall Street Journal
U.S. TROOPS on the battlefield face far more potential dangers than simply
enemy weapons fire: Germ and biochemical weapons, environmental pollution --
even bites from insects and animals native to the battle zone -- can sicken
a soldier with symptoms that linger long after he's gone home.
To shield troops from some of these risks, military doctors typically
inoculate soldiers before deployment with shots against an array of exotic
But what the military hasn't been doing -- at least not well, some veterans
and officials say -- is keeping good medical files on deployed troops to
track the vaccines and treatments they receive and where or when they may
have been exposed to a biological agent in the field.
Accurate records are more than just a bureaucratic issue: Ailing veterans
say the information is vital in helping them qualify for veterans benefits
and to help doctors diagnose, treat and identify the cause of illnesses
soldiers may develop years later.
Now, veterans advocates are taking action so soldiers fighting in this
conflict won't later face the kind of 10-year battle Kirt Love fought for
benefits from the Department of Veteran Affairs.
The 39-year-old former Army mechanic is one of an estimated 100,000 veterans
of the 1990-91 conflict who came home with rashes, nervous-system disorders
and other mysterious ailments known as "Gulf War Syndrome."
But Mr. Love, suffering chronic migraines, abdominal pain and other
ailments, learned it was hard to make the connection between his problems
and military service after he filed his disability benefits claim in 1993.
Mr. Love, of Mount Jackson, Va., says he watched the demolition of an Iraqi
weapons bunker during the war, but he couldn't readily get a detailed
account of his unit's whereabouts to show he was probably exposed to
biological weapons. What troubled him further: Army medical records didn't
even mention all the various vaccines and antidotes military doctors gave
Last year, Mr. Love finally received a disability rating from the VA
acknowledging his problem was service-related and qualifying him for
benefits. But his decadelong quest for information led him to found the
Desert Storm Battle Registry, an advocacy group to advise veterans of
current conflicts on similar cases. "What I went through, no one should
through," he says. "Unfortunately, it's going to happen again."
The Pentagon acknowledges past problems with tracking the troops' medical
history, but Pentagon officials argue they've sharply improved their record
keeping in the current conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. To better track
soldier's health care, the military is starting to put computer terminals in
areas where vaccinations and health screenings occur, and is experimenting
with use of personal digital assistants in the battlefield when soldiers get
treatment so the data can easily be transmitted to the Pentagon.
"Can we improve?" asks William Winkenwerder, assistant secretary of
for health affairs, "yes and that's why we welcome the outside criticism
the way we do things."
Still, Mr. Love doubts things will improve anytime soon. Although Congress
passed a law in 1997 requiring the Pentagon to better monitor the health of
wartime troops, the lawmakers didn't set a deadline for implementing the new
measures. "We still haven't put it together," says U.S. Rep. Steve
Indiana Republican and Gulf War veteran, who helped to write the 1997
legislation and calls the Pentagon's progress toward its implementation
The law mandates medical exams of troops before and after deployment,
immunizations and blood tests. Records of all these medical tests are then
supposed to be entered into a centralized data bank that can be easily
accessed. The law also requires creation of a system to track individual
service members as they move through a theater of operations, so later the
military can reconstruct what agents soldiers may have been exposed to.
But the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress,
estimates it will be 2007 or later before that tracking system is fully
The GAO also has found problems with the data the military already has
gathered. In April 2003, the GAO said it couldn't obtain the medical records
for 332 of 504 "early-deploying" Army reservists, that is soldiers
by to be called up at a moment's notice. And in a September report, the GAO
found similar gaps in the records of 1,100 Army and Air Force veterans of
Kosovo or Afghanistan at four U.S. military bases. The GAO also discovered
widespread problems with dated blood samples, missing medical records and
disparities between the data kept at military bases and information in the
Pentagon's central database.
The military maintains that giving full-blown medical exams just before and
after troops are deployed is logistically impossible. It argues that its
routine schedule of physical exams, sometimes given months prior to
deployment, coupled with veterans' own reports of their condition after
deployment, satisfies the 1997 law. But veterans' advocates say reservists
eager to get home and full-time troops worried about jeopardizing their
military careers often aren't likely to report medical problems.
Michael Woods, an ex-Army mechanic from Kissimmee, Fla., says he didn't
complain initially when he began to experience memory lapses a year or so
after the Gulf War. Still in the Army, he eventually was disciplined for
dangerous behavior such as forgetting to reconnect the brake lines on
military vehicles. He left the Army in 1993 and, amid the onset of
blackouts, seizures and numbness in his limbs, filed a VA disability claim
Mr. Woods is now president of the National Gulf War Resource Center, a
veterans' group lobbying the military and Congress for stronger medical
safeguards for deploying troops. He says results of blood tests and medical
exams would have helped him get his VA disability rating and compensation
more quickly. Had the Army been able to "tell you what I was exposed
says, " . . . there wouldn't be a question, there wouldn't be a
Frayed Paper Trail
Percentage of veterans from Afghanistan's Operation Enduring Freedom at U.S.
military bases lacking deployment-related health records.
Missing records for at least one category:
Fort Campbell, Ky. (Army)
Fort Drum, N.Y. (Army)
Hurlburt Field, Fla. (Air Force)
Travis Air Force Base, Calif.
Source: General Accounting Office
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