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No excuse for abuse

Since 9-11, the good grunts in our Reserve and National Guard have stood tall and made the Pentagon’s helter-skelter, hurry-up-and-wait Reserve mobilization plans work at great personal sacrifice to themselves and their families.

It’s fair to say that without our heroic citizen soldiers, domestic airports and critical facilities wouldn’t have been secured, and our regular forces couldn’t have achieved their battle objectives in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nor could our military have sustained and supported the bloody occupation of Iraq – which more and more is becoming the Reserve’s full-time burden.

Virtually all of these part-time soldiers from every one of the services – less the Marine Corps – have rucksacks full of grim tales regarding screw-overs either by the Pentagon, their own chain of command or the regular units to which they were attached. Or a combination of all of the above.

Here’s one horror story culled from the thousands of complaints that just keep coming: In late February 2003, only a few weeks before two mighty iron fists – the Army’s 3rd Mech Division and the Marine’s 1st Marine Division – punched toward Baghdad, the Air Force Reserve’s elite 514th and 439th Aeromedical Staging Squadrons were activated. Two days after D-Day in Iraq, they were flown to Germany and busted their butts converting a gym at Ramstein Air Base into an operational, 100-bed contingency aeromedical staging facility, the 86th CASF.

Shockingly, the CASF was still setting up when the casualties started pouring in. “We were three days late for the war and two months late for the mission,” explains one medic. So much for prior planning.

The CASF is composed of total pros who don’t suffer incompetence quietly. Many of their docs, nurses and medics have practiced their medical disciplines for decades in civilian life, and most of these highly skilled folks were at Ramstein during Desert Storm. “We are a very highly trained group with an unmatched depth of experience,” says one doctor. “But as reservists we also brought with us a rare quality in the armed forces: total honesty. We don’t have military careers to protect, and unlike the normal military health-care system, we put our emphasis on customer service.”

Right from the get-go, the CASF ran into an iron wall of regular Army bureaucratic red tape – beginning with the commander of Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, which the unit directly supported. “He really had no clue why we were there,” reports a doc. “No one had briefed him on how to use us. And we spent our early days battling him while the incoming casualties built up.”

Miracles happen. Desert Storm heroine Col. Rhonda Cornum took over as commanding officer of Landstuhl, and according to another doc, “She was truly a bright light in the nighttime and got things clicking.”

Now the most taxing problem for the fine 86th team became Army Reserve and Guard non-battle casualties who should have never left the States for Iraq in the first place. “By the time my group was redeployed home in November we had handled about 9,000 casualties,” says a medic.

Many of these were pre-existing prior to their deployment. One soldier with a broken wrist in the USA had his cast cut off and was told to get on the plane. As soon as he landed in Kuwait he complained about the pain in his wrist and was immediately evacuated to us and then to the States. Total time in theater: two weeks. You can multiply that story by thousands with confidence. Substitute fractured wrist for torn knee cartilage, diabetes, hypertension, herniated disk, thyroid disease, depression, anxiety disorder, pregnancy – the list goes on and on. It was a travesty.

A travesty is putting it mildly. The CASF’s records provide a paper trail that goes from crooked, pencil-whipping small-unit leaders all the way to the Pentagon. Ironically, the same mistakes were made during Desert Shield/Storm, but since the Air Force brass conveniently lost that after-action report, the folks in command were free to screw up all over again.

We must make sure these patriotic soldiers are treated well and used properly. Which means Congress needs to get on the stick and sic the GAO (General Accounting Office) on the Reserve/NG ASAP.