Mark Benjamin reports for Salon.com that on February 15, the division surgeon and the brigade surgeon summoned 75 soldiers to a meeting to discuss their medical status.
Eight soldiers who were at the Feb. 15 meeting say they were summoned to the troop medical clinic at 6:30 in the morning and lined up to meet with division surgeon Lt. Col. George Appenzeller, who had arrived from Fort Stewart, Ga., and Capt. Aaron K. Starbuck, brigade surgeon at Fort Benning. The soldiers described having a cursory discussion of their profiles, with no physical exam or extensive review of medical files. They say Appenzeller and Starbuck seemed focused on downplaying their physical problems. "This guy was changing people's profiles left and right," said a captain who injured his back during his last tour in Iraq and was ordered to Iraq after the Feb. 15 review.
Appenzeller said the review of 75 soldiers with profiles was an effort to make sure they were as accurate as possible prior to deployment. "As the division surgeon and the senior medical officer in the division, I wanted to ensure that all the patients with profiles were fully evaluated with clear limitations that commanders could use to make the decision whether they could deploy, and if they did deploy, what their limitations would be while there," he said in a telephone interview from Fort Stewart. He said he changed less than one-third of those profiles -- even making some more restrictive -- in order to "bring them into accordance with regulations."
In direct contradiction to the account given by the soldiers, Appenzeller said physical examinations were conducted and that he had a robust medical team there working with him, which is how they managed to complete 75 reviews in one day. Appenzeller denied that the plan was to find more warm bodies for the surge into Baghdad, as did Col. Wayne W. Grigsby Jr., the brigade commander. Grigsby said he is under "no pressure" to find soldiers, regardless of health, to make his unit look fit. The health and welfare of his soldiers are a top priority, said Grigsby, because are "our most important resource, perhaps the most important resource we have in this country."
One of the soldiers Benjamin interviewed for the piece, Master Sgt. Ronald Jenkins, is fighting the change in his medical status since doctors have told him his spine injury would be greatly worsened by carrying the weight of heavy protective gear. Jenkins is on serious medication for the chronic pain of his degenerative spinal injury--a long scar on the back of his neck shows where three of his vertebrae were fused together during surgery. According to Benjamin:
His medical records say he is "at significantly increased risk of re-injury during deployment where he will be wearing Kevlar, body armor and traveling through rough terrain." Late last year, those medical records show, a doctor recommended that Jenkins be referred to an Army board that handles retirements when injuries are permanent and severe.
After Jenkins had his physical profile downgraded at the February 15th meeting, he was ordered to re-deploy to Iraq for another tour.