Staff Sgt. Ryan Ziegler spent seven months fighting insurgents in Afghanistan before returning home last spring. And he has now spent the last six months fighting the Army to get treated for his injuries from that deployment.
“It’s ridiculous,” said the 32-year-old Army National Guard soldier, who has to put his medical school plans on hold for a year because of the delays. “You think you’re gonna come home and things will be in order. I expected that after what we did, we’d get the best care. We didn’t.”
Ziegler said one physician he saw refused to refill a prescription for his post-traumatic stress disorder, saying the soldier should do that on his own. When he asked for scans of his injured shoulder to check for lingering problems, he was denied. When he complained of continued pain, another official told him to “go to the ER if it’s that bad.”
And he’s not the only member of his unit — the 19th Special Forces Group — to voice those complaints. Multiple guardsmen who returned from the same combat deployment in May say medical officials who handled their demobilization process at Fort Bliss in Texas ignored serious problems in an effort to more quickly get them out the door and out of the system.
“I was denied a provider for a physical examination, access to specialized doctors for injuries sustained during my tour, and [my appeals] ended abruptly when I was dismissed by a lieutenant colonel who told me to go seek care from Veterans Affairs,” wrote one guardsman, who requested anonymity out of fear of retaliation from senior officers.
“I felt so disrespected and angered by our treatment that I sought out my own care when I got home.”
Now several congressional committees are investigating whether Fort Bliss officials are intentionally ignoring medical problems in an effort to lighten their workload, and whether future guardsmen processing through the site will face similar difficulties.
In a response to Military Times queries, Army Medical Command officials said they are aware of the complaints and “have responded to great feedback from [Congress] and other organizations” about the problems.
But they also said the problem of inadequate medical care is in part the fault of returning troops.
“Soldiers naturally want to get home to their families as fast as possible, as do the individual commands they come from,” officials said in a statement. “We try to be as efficient as possible while meeting the needs of the individual soldier.”
Advocates say they’re fearful that guardsmen — who already face a different set of challenges during deployment than their active-duty counterparts — are being treated as second-class citizens by Fort Bliss leadership, and possibly other service officials as well.
“The last thing an injured combat veteran wants to hear during redeployment processing is to take their problems somewhere else,” said Frank Yoakum, a retired Army sergeant major and executive director of the Enlisted Association of the National Guard of the United States. “Callous disregard for combat injuries is not consistent with our military’s values and ethics.”
Weeks without help
Members of the 19th Special Forces Group who deployed to Afghanistan last fall said they faced a grueling operations tempo during their time in the combat zone, with frequent firefights and around-the-clock missions.
Ziegler, a medic with the group, said he suffered a shoulder injury on one mission but stayed on duty. He also was later diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, but was given medication to allow him to finish the deployment.
It ended in early May. Because of travel issues, his prescription ran out three days before arriving at Fort Bliss for demobilization activities.
“But it wasn’t a big deal, I figured I’d just get them filled once I got there,” he said.
On day two in Texas, he met with officials at the base’s Soldier and Family Readiness Clinic, who told him they couldn’t fill the prescription without new doctor’s orders. On day three, he asked his medical demobilization officer to help clear up the problem.
“He scrolled through my profile and said I was good to go,” Zeigler said. “He never really looked at the papers.”
The medical files noted not only his PTSD diagnosis but also the possibility of a torn labrum, something physicians in Afghanistan said he should get examined immediately upon returning home.
When Zeigler brought it up, he was told Veterans Affairs doctors could handle both issues later, after he was processed out of active duty.
“He made it clear to me they weren’t going to do anything for me,” he said. “This lieutenant colonel pretty much forced me out of his cubicle and told me I was OK.”
The same day, Ziegler returned to press different officials for medical care from Army doctors.
“At one point, I was standing in line with five other guys, all with the same problems, all asking for care,” he said.
On day 10, his unit left the post, with him still petitioning for medical scans and prescription refills.
On day 11, his family arrived in Texas but had to pay for a hotel themselves as Ziegler continued his bureaucratic fight.
On day 19, he was told he could eventually get an appointment for an MRI scan, but the Army wouldn’t pay for housing for him or his family if he stayed in Texas.
On day 25, he gave up.
When he returned home to California days later, he began setting up appointments with local, non-military physicians. He got his medication shortly thereafter from a VA psychiatrist. Another doctor confirmed he did have a torn labrum and would need surgery.
Then, three months later, Army officials recalled him to Fort Bliss. His complaints about substandard care had reached Capitol Hill and prompted officials to pull him back across the country to “fix” the problem. Instead of moving ahead with local medical help, he’d have to start the demobilization process over again.
“I had successfully coordinated my own care,” he said. “And when I got back to Fort Bliss, no one seemed to know why I was there and what I needed.”
Promises of improvements
Army Medical Command officials in a statement said that service policy mandates all returning guardsmen receive “a thorough medical history and physical exam” upon returning from an overseas combat deployment.
“In cases where a soldier was injured or became ill and cannot perform basic soldier duties, he/she may be assigned to a Warrior Transition Battalion,” they said. “Most soldiers are able to return home following deployment.”
But EANGUS officials say that didn’t happen with the 19th Special Forces Group. Along with Zeigler, at least nine others relayed complaints of too-quick medical exams, incomplete care information, and apathy from staffers charged with helping them transition back home.
“Some service members were even told to seek treatment elsewhere,” the group wrote in a letter to House Armed Services Committee leaders. “If true, the allegations go against a solemn vow to ensure our soldiers are equipped on the battlefield and provided comprehensive care.”
Fort Bliss handles demobilization activities for about 60,000 personnel a year, about 24,000 of whom are Guard and Reserve troops. In a briefing with committee members last month, Fort Bliss officials said they found shortfalls in individual cases but “no major systemic problems/issues with the process.”
In a statement to Military Times, Army Medical Command officials said they have launched a working group “to determine problem areas and properly address the medical aspects” of the 19th Special Forces Group’s complaints.
Advocates want more. They’ve asked lawmakers to press for more sensitivity training for Fort Bliss workers and the removal of some senior officials for what they see as apathetic leadership at the site.
Members of the Armed Services and Veterans’ Affairs committees on Capitol Hill are reviewing the situation. House Veterans’ Affairs Committee ranking member Tim Walz, D-Minn., called the allegations “deeply concerning” given the importance of troops’ health.
“While I am encouraged to hear that the Defense Department has taken steps to make these troops whole and prevent this from ever happening again in the future, there is still much we can do to create a seamless transition for every service member returning to civilian life,” he said in a statement.
Whether Army officials have reached all the affected guardsmen is still uncertain.
Members of the unit said some soldiers, frustrated with what they saw at Fort Bliss, simply plowed through paperwork as quickly as possible to get back home. Since the guardsmen aren’t in frequent contact with each other, they don’t know if others are struggling with PTSD, traumatic brain injury or other overlooked problems.
Zeigler, who continues to fight the issue, was eventually transferred to a Warrior Transition Battalion under a different command at Fort Bliss. He said he is happy with the mental health care he has received so far at that site, but is still baffled why it took nearly a month of fighting and three months of inaction before his case was handled properly.
“I had originally planned to start medical school this fall,” Zeigler said. “But then the Army threatened me with AWOL status if I didn’t come back for their medical care, after I didn’t get it the first time. So now I’m getting the care I need, but my life is on hold for another year.”
And he still hasn’t gotten his shoulder fixed, even though his injury frequently causes his hand to go numb. He said he’s up to seven pills a day to help deal with his lingering issues.
“There’s no way I’m letting these guys touch it here,” he said. “I’m confident I could get a surgery. But then [afterward] I’d have no one to support me.”