Unfit for Duty — Real or Rumor?

The Army is sending unfit soldiers into combat. Outrageous? True, reported USA Today. America’s most-read newspaper profiled three soldiers from the Army’s 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team (BCT), based at Alaska’s Fort Wainright. The men in question reportedly had medical conditions that should have kept them from deploying. One soldier alleged he was “forced” to head to Iraq even though he would pass out “during physical training.” The second, a chief warrant officer and 19-year Army veteran, said he had “active tuberculosis” and was unable to don body armor because of back injuries. The third soldier was coming off shoulder surgery — and not his first in the aftermath of his last Iraq deployment during which his vehicle met an IED blast. He was unable to move his arm.

The above examples do not bode well for Team Army, but get this — read the story carefully, and it seems none of these guys deployed. Confused? So are we.

This seeming Walter-Reed-style fishing expedition has all the makings of a good piece of investigative journalism, except there might be no nefarious plot to uncover. No incompetence to exploit. Two of the soldiers it appears stayed behind because they were found unfit to deploy, though the story works to suggest otherwise. Our warrant officer decided to march to his own drummer and was charged with disobeying an order among other things. (It is interesting to note USA Today lists our warrant as 36 years old, which means he entered the service at age 15 or 16. Typo? Goes to motive? Our shoulder injury reportedly deployed Dec. 5 yet had been referred to a medical board.) A further blurring (maybe exploitation) of facts?

Though it appears the USA Today story might be based on some flimsy interviews and loosely interpreted medical records, the Army has said it is looking into the allegations. (What else are Army leaders really going to say in its post-Walter-Reed world?) The Army Inspector General has determined the service’s system for determining deployment suitability is confusing and riddled with conflicting information. (Objective finding?)

Is this suddenly new territory? The Army has been processing soldiers for combat through all of this nation’s conflicts. Commanders are expected to maintain manning levels and most likely will push soldiers as necessary. Moving a unit of any size halfway around the world to a combat environment for an undetermined period might be more challenging than extracting toxic mortgage assets from the sprawling financial industry. Oddly, USA Today overlooked that part of the story. Or was the Army panicked over its Hurricane Katrina and reluctant to state the decades-old truth?

Back at Fort Wainright, the 1st Stryker BCT left 80 soldiers behind during the deployment in question. Twenty-three later joined their unit, according to the story.

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