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Army secretary vows improvements at Fort Stewart

Brownlee says sick, injured soldiers need better treatment

Acting secretary of the Army Les Brownlee

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FORT STEWART, Georgia (CNN) -- After touring barracks that prompted complaints about miserable living conditions for U.S. troops, the acting secretary of the Army vowed to make improvements and allocate more money to upgrade the living quarters.

Acting secretary Les Brownlee said Saturday that living conditions on the base vary greatly, and said troops with medical problems should receive preferential treatment.

Brownlee offered no further details.

The Army acknowledged problems at Fort Stewart after the complaints became public earlier this week. Medical facilities in particular have been stretched thin by the roughly 20,000 troops returning to the base from tours of duty in Iraq, as well as troops getting ready for overseas deployment.

Of the 633 soldiers on medical hold at Fort Stewart because of illness or injury, 405 were hurt or sickened while deployed to the Persian Gulf region, according to the Army News Service. Being on medical hold means a soldier cannot be deployed for health reasons.

Many complaints involve a lack of timely medical care, with soldiers waiting up to 45 days for procedures such as MRI tests.

Many of the complaints have come from National Guard and Reserve troops placed on medical hold. According to Army doctors, medical hold cases are often difficult to diagnose, and include symptoms linked to wartime stress or trauma.

"Those in medical status, they should be in the improved level of billets, those that are air conditioned and have some of the other improvements, like indoor latrines," Brownlee said.

"We're going to move to make those improvements."

He also promised to examine other mobilization sites, to see if similar conditions existed elsewhere. If they do, he said, "We'll take appropriate action."

"I want to emphasize that what happened here at Fort Stewart is not just a Fort Stewart issue," Brownlee added. "It's an Army issue. The people at Fort Stewart did what they could with what they had, but the Army has more assets and we'll focus those assets to solve any problems we've found here."

Although some troops had complained that regular Army soldiers were receiving treatment ahead of National Guard and Reserve personnel, Brownlee insisted otherwise.

"There's one standard for our soldiers, be they active or reserve. We provide medical care based upon the urgency of medical need, and no other considerations."

Earlier in the week, an Army assessment team made other recommendations, including a call to send physical therapists to help soldiers who have waited months for therapy. In addition, eight new case managers will begin working Monday with patients on medical hold, 50 soldiers on medical hold will be transferred to Fort Gordon in Georgia and 25 others will be cleared to go home.

Brownlee hinted Saturday that more changes might be coming.

"The Army does recognize its obligation to take care of all our soldiers from start to finish," he said. "We're here today to assess how we're doing with that, and to look at any areas that may need further attention."

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