MADELEINE BRAND, host:
From the studios of NPR West, this is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.
ALEX CHADWICK, host:
I'm Alex Chadwick. Coming up, a mixed reception for the president in Latin America.
BRAND: But first, the Army's 3rd Infantry division out of Fort Benning, Georgia is heading back to Iraq for its third tour. Among the 3,900 troops returning to Iraq are soldiers with serious medical problems, including injuries so severe they cannot wear their body armor.
That is according to a story in the online magazine Salon. Reporter Mark Benjamin wrote that story. And he joins me now. Welcome to DAY TO DAY, Mark.
Mr. MARK BENJAMIN (Salon): Thanks for having me.
BRAND: And you also - just to put you in context - you also broke the Walter Reed Hospital story two years ago, right, about the problems with medical care there?
Mr. BENJAMIN: Yes. I also concentrated on outpatient care or the difficulty of getting prompt outpatient care at Walter Reed and the difficulty of, you know, struggling with this complex Byzantine bureaucracy that is supposed to compensate soldiers for their ills while they're getting outpatient therapy there.
BRAND: OK. So you've been working on this story for a long time about injured soldiers. How did you hear about them being returned to duty?
Mr. BENJAMIN: This particular story, an e-mail was forwarded to me by a veterans advocate from a soldier at Fort Benning who was very concerned because the soldier had health problems - spine problems - that he could not wear his body armor essentially and had been ordered back to Iraq.
The soldier also claimed that he and dozens of other soldiers had been brought into a room late last month - February 15th - to have a meeting with the division surgeon who quickly reevaluated this person's, you know, fitness for combat and essentially on paper made the soldier look healthier than he really is.
And as soon as I started getting contacted by other soldiers saying similar things and having soldiers poke around for me to find other people to talk to, I got on a plane and went down to Fort Benning.
BRAND: And how many soldiers did you talk to who told you these stories?
Mr. BENJAMIN: What happened is on February 15th the Army - and the Army says that this did occur - on February 15th the division surgeon and the brigade surgeon for the 3rd Brigade of the 3rd Infantry division looked at 75 soldiers from that brigade on that day. I don't know if they did it on other days too. But at least on that day they looked at 75 soldiers with illness and injuries.
I talked with eight soldiers - seven separate interviews - who met with the division surgeon that day. And they were very concerned about what happened that day. They felt like they had health problems that were being dismissed. And the next thing you know they got orders to Iraq.
BRAND: Well, you know, could this be explained by saying, well, perhaps their health problems aren't as great as they themselves thought and that they could do some duties - maybe not all active combat duties but some duties, and could do something in Iraq?
Mr. BENJAMIN: That's certainly the argument of the chain of command. The chain of command does not - you know, I interviewed the brigade commander who said, look, you know, we do sometimes send people overseas who do have what they call physical profiles who, you know, who can't do combat missions. You know, we can put them working in the grocery store at the PX or we can have them sitting behind a desk.
The soldiers that I interviewed - including some who've been to Iraq - say it doesn't sort of work like that in Iraq. At one point or another you're in a situation - whether it's mortar in your base or whatever - where you're going to need to be able to move like a combat soldier.
And frankly, some of them don't buy it. Some of them frankly think they're going to end up in situations that the command says they're not going to end up in.
BRAND: The division surgeon - you interviewed him. What did he say?
Mr. BENJAMIN: The division surgeon's argument is that, hey, this is my job to go down to Fort Benning and go look at these soldiers who have these health problems and make sure that their files are up to date, you know, the I's are dotted and the T's are crossed and nobody is sent to Iraq that shouldn't be and so on and so forth.
The problem is that the division surgeon and the brigade surgeon appear to have reviewed 75 soldiers in one day. This happened on one day. The soldiers say they, you know, literally walked into a room, had a quick discussion with these medical officials and walked out and the next thing you know they've got orders to go to Iraq.
There is a difference of what - you know, an opinion of what happened that day. The division surgeon says, oh, no, no, no. I brought a whole medical team down there to carefully analyze some of these soldiers and make sure that they're, you know, that we knew exactly what their health problems were.
So there's a difference of opinion among the soldiers and the division surgeon on just what happened on February 15th.
BRAND: Mark Benjamin, reporter for Salon magazine - Salon.com - thank you very much.
Mr. BENJAMIN: Thanks for having me.
BRAND: And just a note here. We have attempted to reach military for comment on this story and have had no word yet.
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