Sgt. Kevin Mulloy’s new uniform was ready, airline tickets bought and plans finalized to celebrate the soldier's commissioning Dec. 12 through the Army Green to Gold program.
But eight days before this milestone was to take place, Mulloy, a former Army Installation Management Command Soldier of the Year, received a memo from U.S. Army Cadet Command:
“After careful review of this case, Cadet Mulloy has been found medically unqualified for continuance in the ROTC program,” it said, signed by Maj. Gen. Peggy Combs, commanding general, U.S. Army Cadet Command.
The reason: Mulloy has a history of “intestinal malabsorption syndromes and sleep disturbances” that preclude him from serving as a commissioned officer.
Apparently, though, they don’t stop him from serving as an enlisted troop. Mulloy has been told to report back to his duty station to receive orders for a line unit.
"I haven't heard anything about a medical board. I was just told I'd get orders somewhere and get a job as an NCO," Mulloy said in an interview with Military Times.
Mulloy entered the Army in 2009 and had an unblemished career as a truck driver for a year, when he was assigned to Vicenza, Italy, and fell ill. He began dropping weight inexplicably and, after developing lung abscesses, wound up in a warrior transition unit preparing for a medical discharge.
But doctors found that Mulloy’s health problems were tied to allergies and celiac disease, an inherited autoimmune disorder triggered by eating foods that contain gluten from wheat, rye or barley.
Once Mulloy stopped eating pasta and other products with gluten, he recovered.
Mulloy went on to be named the Soldier of the Year in 2012 for Army Installation Command, competing in the Army's Best Warrior competition. He was accepted to the Green to Gold program and earned a master’s degree in management from University of Texas at El Paso. He graduated in the top 15 percent of his Cadet Leaders Course class.
Celiac disease and another wheat-related digestion problem, gluten sensitivity, are disqualifying conditions for military service.
Some of Mulloy’s medical records say he has “mild gluten sensitivity,” while other files state the 25-year-old has celiac disease and sleep apnea.
A spokesman for U.S. Army Cadet Command said the unit did not learn of Mulloy's condition until summer 2015 when he was slated to attend Cadet Leaders Course.
“In this case … the soldier has been identified as having two non-waiverable medical conditions that disqualify him for commissioning,” public affairs officer Mike Johnson said. “According to a January 2012 medical questionnaire, the soldier had no disqualifying conditions.”
But Mulloy says his gastrointestinal problems were well noted in his medical records, and a glance through his electronic personnel files in Army Knowledge Online shows he was flagged for celiac disease and sleep apnea on Feb. 8, 2013.
While Army Cadet Leaders Course officials maintain they weren't aware of the conditions until 2015, the Army deferred his entrance to the Green to Gold program from 2013 to 2014 while it investigated his medical readiness.
He was allowed to enter the program in 2014, and in 2015, a physician at the Soldier Family Medical Clinic cleared him for service.
"This memo is to confirm that Kevin Michael Mulloy is able to continue in the program without any medical restrictions. Mulloy's condition is only an allergy and is not life-threatening," wrote Dr. Joseph Plas.
Mulloy agrees, adding that he is trying to track down all of his medical records to determine whether he ever was actually confirmed to have celiac disease.
“My gluten intolerance has not been a mystery to anyone. I’ve been pretty open with my dietary limitations,” Mulloy said.
Celiac disease is an inherited autoimmune disorder characterized by damage to the small intestines caused when an afflicted person consumes gluten, the protein in wheat, rye and barley.
Gluten sensitivity or intolerance is a condition that can cause a variety of gastrointestinal symptoms, headaches and pain when gluten is consumed.
The military services say both conditions are not compatible with military service. Malabsorption illnesses can lead to malnourishment and other debilitating symptoms, even death if left untreated.
With the challenges of maintaining a gluten-free diet in deployed environments, the services have decided these types of conditions are disqualifying.
Army National Guard Capt. Ben Andrasik stopped eating gluten as a child when his mother was diagnosed with celiac disease and began cooking gluten-free for the family. Andrasik demurred when asked if he has been diagnosed with celiac disease but said he gets gastrointestinal symptoms when he eats gluten.
The author of "Gluten-free in Afghanistan," Andrasik spent a year at Kandahar Airfield and serves as an ersatz mentor and counselor for those in the military with diet-based medical conditions.
"It’s difficult,” Andrasik said about deploying gluten-free. "It's a challenge on top of a challenge."
"I can see where the services would resort to the easy solution — just not putting people in the situation. But ... it’s too easy to make some small changes in the chow halls, particularly the contracted ones, like putting up allergy labels, that would help.”
Andrasik recommends service members with malabsorption diagnoses facing discharge or recruits who want to serve press for a waiver.
“I’d continue to fight and push. There’s no reason it should be disqualifying,” Andrasik said.
More than 3 million Americans are estimated to have celiac disease, but only 17 percent have been properly diagnosed, according to the Celiac Disease Foundation.
Talia Hassid, communications director for the foundation, said getting a diagnosis can be challenging because the symptoms, including gastrointestinal problems and malnutrition in children, as well as headaches, joint pain, swelling and abdominal problems in adults, mimic other diseases.
A diagnosis also requires a blood test and biopsy, but a patient must be consuming gluten at the time of the tests to produce a positive result.
“It’s very important, if you think you have celiac disease, to see your doctor and not self-medicate by eating a gluten-free diet because the tests won’t work if you do that,” Hassid said.
She added that the military environment would present challenges for remaining gluten-free.
"There are limited food options in the military, and there aren’t dedicated cooking spaces. Cross-contamination is an issue, and the amount of flour that can fit under your pinky fingernail will make someone with celiac sick,” Hassid said.
Mulloy says he has managed his condition for years with diet and is physically fit.
Johnson said Mulloy’s case is “currently under review by the U.S. Army Cadet Command Surgeon” and Mulloy has not been disenrolled from the ROTC program “pending submission of further medical documentation to support his assertion that he is fit for duty as a commissioned officer.”
Mulloy said he is obtaining copies of all records to make his case.
“There is no possible way I hid anything from the Army. All you have to do is plunk my Social Security number into AKO and you will find everything out about my medical history,” Mulloy said. "My hope is they will re-evaluate and make a different decision."
This article was updated to change the requirements stated for obtaining a celiac disease diagnosis.
Patricia Kime covers military and veterans' health care and medicine for Military Times. She can be reached at email@example.com