ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
The Army's top doctor has been under pressure for the last week over an incident at Fort Drum Army base in upstate New York. Last year, a team from the Army surgeon general's office told Veterans Affairs' workers at Fort Drum to stop helping disabled soldiers with their medical paperwork.
When NPR first reported on that meeting, the surgeon general denied the story. Then NPR obtained a VA document that contradicted his account.
Today, Surgeon General Eric Schoomaker talked with NPR's Ari Shapiro about the controversy, and Mr. Schoomaker attributed the discrepancy to a miscommunication.
ARI SHAPIRO: General Schoomaker says he wants to make one thing clear.
Surgeon General ERIC SCHOOMAKER (U.S. Army, Fort Drum): We encourage and welcome any help that these soldiers and their families can receive from confident, well-informed people.
SHAPIRO: Schoomaker needs to say this because a document from the Veterans Affairs Department at Fort Drum described someone on the surgeon general's staff giving a very different message to Fort Drum's VA workers last March. The document says that a meeting between the Army and VA, an official from the surgeon general's office told the VA to stop helping soldiers with the medical summaries of their Army injuries.
In the aftermath, soldiers said it felt like a slap on the face when the VA refused to review the paperwork that can determine their health care and disability benefits. Before the VA document came out, Schoomaker flatly denied that anyone from his office told the VA to back off. Today, he tried to explain why.
Surgeon Gen. SCHOOMAKER: It just didn't sense to me. And then when I spoke to members of the team that went up there, they had no recollection of that having been, you know, a part of their exchanges. In fact, their recollection and their re-creation of that visit up to Fort Drum was very, very positive. They were very laudatory of what the veterans benefits advisers were doing for our soldiers up there. They felt in many cases it was almost a best practice.
SHAPIRO: What's so surprising is that the people you spoke with gave you an account that not only was different from the account in these documents, but that almost could not have been more opposite.
Surgeon Gen. SCHOOMAKER: I know. I mean, it's - isn't that amazing? It sort of speaks to miscommunication, doesn't it?
SHAPIRO: The VA memorandum is very detailed. It describes the Army team member telling the VA to stop helping soldiers because there was, quote, "a conflict of interest." According to the document, one member of the VA even pushed back a bit. He said the Army inspector general approved what we were doing, thought it was helpful. But if you want us to quit, we will.
I told Schoomaker it's hard to see how such a detailed document written the day after the meeting could reflect such a dramatic miscommunication.
Surgeon Gen. SCHOOMAKER: Really all I can say is I wish I had seen this. I wish the team had seen this. I wish this had been shared with the team on the same day that it was written so that we would have seen clearly what their perception of things. We've always - we've all seen experiences where different observers of the same event report it in different ways, and I think this might be one of those examples, and it's unfortunate. This is an object lesson for us all.
SHAPIRO: Schoomaker says he has apologized to everyone he issued the original denial to. At Fort Drum, there are roughly 400 soldiers and what the Army calls the warrior transition unit.
Because of this misunderstanding between the Army and the VA, the VA has given those soldiers less help in the last year than their predecessors. Schoomaker says soldiers who believe they were disadvantaged by this process should say something.
Surgeon Gen. SCHOOMAKER: I wasn't aware that anyone has not gotten the best advice. If anyone out there feels that they didn't get the best advice, they need to come forward and let us know about that.
SHAPIRO: Schoomaker says if he could give one message to the VA workers at Fort Drum, it would be the message he intended to convey a year ago.
Surgeon Gen. SCHOOMAKER: Which is, hey, thanks for helping our soldiers. You're doing a terrific job. We think that the practices and the behaviors exhibited is among the best we have seen. We want to encourage you to continue to help us, and we're very grateful for the assistance you're providing our warriors and our families.
Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.
NORRIS: And you can view the VA document online at npr.org