Soldiers Sent to Iraq Despite Illness

FAIRBANKS, Alaska — When the "Arctic Warriors" Stryker Brigade left for Iraq from nearby Fort Wainwright late last year, commanders told soldiers who were suffering medical problems that they would also go to war.

Spc. Mark Oldham was on a plane to Iraq by Dec. 5 despite being declared unfit because he passes out during training and requires a 30-day heart-monitor exam, his medical records show.

ARMY: Report targets policy on combat fitness

Sgt. Jesse McElroy, a combat veteran who had shoulder surgery in September and could barely move his arm, according to his medical records, was told to deploy or face charges for malingering.

Chief Warrant Officer Adisa "A.J." Aiyetoro, a 19-year veteran who is stricken with active tuberculosis and unable to wear body armor because of back injuries, according to medical and court records, refused to go. "I'm not getting on that plane," he says. His court-martial on charges of disobeying an order and missing a deployment is scheduled for Monday.

"The only reason that I'm being deployed is they want (greater) numbers" of troops in the field, Oldham said before leaving. He is assigned to communications.

A recent Army inspector general's report says the process for deciding a soldier's fitness for combat is so confusing that it increases the chance of sending ailing troops to war.

At Fort Wainwright, 80 soldiers with health issues were left behind when the 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team deployed in September, says Lt. Col. Jonathan Allen, an Army spokesman.

Twenty-three were later brought to Iraq to help "maintain (the brigade's) personnel strength" — but only after their health improved, he says. Oldham and McElroy were among those left behind. Oldham was among those later deployed.

Army Col. Ronald Stephens, commander of Bassett Army Community Hospital at Fort Wainwright, says his doctors work well with commanders and follow all fitness guidelines.

Several soldiers caught in the process and willing to speak out tell a different story. They describe a climate where commanders constantly pressure soldiers with health issues to deploy, even when their medical records — which they provided — show physical problems.

In response, a group of soldiers that includes McElroy plans to meet Monday at the Alaska Peace Center here to gather signatures for a petition to mail to members of Congress. The petition says, "As the shortage of troops has become more and more difficult to overcome, our commanders have become more and more aggressive in deploying soldiers with injuries and illnesses."

"What we're trying to do is just get our stories heard," says Sgt. Stephen Scroggs, who tracks the progress of ailing soldiers left behind for the 1st Battalion, 5th Infantry Regiment. He is part of the rear detachment and is involved in the petition drive. "A lot of soldiers are suffering, I just don't want them to suffer anymore."

Allen says all medical cases were thoroughly vetted and when doctors determined that soldiers met deployment health criteria, they were deployed. Those with persistent issues stayed home, he says.

Aiyetoro began developing chronic, debilitating back pain after an earlier combat deployment. He is an armament maintenance technician with the 25th Brigade Support Battalion.

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