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Army seeks to reduce patient backlog at base

Reservists complain about medical treatment, living conditions

From Barbara Starr
CNN Washington Bureau

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The U.S. Army will send specialists to help reduce a backlog of National Guardsmen and reservists seeking medical care at Fort Stewart, Georgia, military sources said Monday.

The additional medical personnel will come from the Eisenhower Army Medical Center in Augusta, Georgia, the sources said.

The move is part of an initiative to reduce what Army officials have acknowledged is a backlog problem at Fort Stewart.

Troops have complained of a lack of timely medical care and substandard living conditions. United Press International editor Mark Benjamin first reported on the complaints after a visit to the U.S. Army base in southeast Georgia.

A Fort Stewart spokesman described living conditions as "Spartan" and "austere" but "safe."

"I don't think it's fair to call it substandard," said the spokesman, who asked not to be identified. "There's no squalor in the military barracks. Is it hot? Absolutely."

He added that some barracks are air-conditioned while others are not.

The Army doesn't deny there is a backlog in providing medical care to some troops returning from Iraq but emphasizes that care is provided on the basis of medical need, not whether a soldier is active duty or in the reserves.

A team is being sent to look at the problem at the base and may also decide to recommend the Army sign contracts with private doctors to provide additional care. Another option is to send patients to private-care facilities in nearby Savannah.

Army sources said the backlog in medical appointments is due in part to the 20,000 troops of divisions returning from Iraq who are competing for the same medical care.

But officials said troops in temporary training barracks have been determined not to be in a state of medical crisis. They also said that the conditions are typical for training barracks.

The Fort Stewart spokesman said only a handful of wounded soldiers were in the "medical hold" unit, but he did not have an exact figure.

Soldiers in that unit are deemed too sick to serve. During treatment, a decision is made on whether they will be able to serve again, and the Army then decides what percentage of benefits they are entitled to should they be dismissed from service.

An Army spokesman said he did not know what conditions are like for sick and wounded soldiers and would wait for an assessment team's report. He insisted that the "Army has responsibility to guardsmen, reservists and active duty [soldiers]."

Another soldier who recently left Fort Stewart described the conditions to CNN as "substandard." One sergeant who said she was afraid to give her name cited a general fear among ill soldiers to speak to the media.

"Here we all were overseas ready to get ourselves killed in order to bring democracy to these countries, and we get home, and we don't even have freedom of speech anymore," she said, adding that she has been on medical hold since May after becoming ill in Kuwait.

CNN Producers Laurie Ure and Linda Saether contributed to this report.

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