- Associated Press - Friday, October 7, 2016

FORT RILEY, Kan. (AP) - Tracey Martin was boarding a plane in late August when she received another round of bad news about her son.

Stephen Martin, an Army specialist, had an autoimmune disease that was eating away at his nerve endings, gradually eroding his ability to feel in his limbs. And it was getting worse.

“As I get on the plane, I get an email from the doctor saying my son will never fully recover, because of these gaps in treatment, he’s in the condition he’s in, that he’s going to be receiving treatments the rest of his life,” Tracey Martin recalled.

She was in the midst of a battle with military bureaucracy to secure long-term treatment for her son and extricate him from the tentacles of Fort Riley, which she told The Topeka Capital-Journal (http://bit.ly/2dqro8B ) kept him from getting the care he needed as he lost feeling in more of his body.

Beginning in early August, Tracey Martin, an attorney in Joplin, Missouri, used military connections, members of Congress and stern dispatches to Pentagon officials to pressure Fort Riley for her son’s transfer. It worked; Stephen Martin now is receiving regular treatment at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., and shows signs of improvement.

But the fight to move Stephen to Walter Reed from the Warrior Transition Battalion he was assigned to at Fort Riley left Tracey Martin disillusioned and voicing frustration with what she sees as negligence by commanders.

U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat who intervened on Martin’s behalf, said through a spokeswoman that the situation had been unacceptable.

While Martin is fighting to recover, another soldier whose family tangled with military bureaucracy at Fort Riley lost his fight. Sgt. Zach Ewing died of cancer in August.

Ewing was in the Warrior Transition Battalion until he was allowed to travel to a cancer center in Texas. Like Martin, Ewing’s mother relied on outside intervention to get her son moved.

Rebecca Ewing acknowledged Fort Riley likely followed policy, but she believes more could have been done sooner to give her son a better chance.

“I was told by a soldier last year when we first got there - he said, ‘If you want your son to live, get him out of Fort Riley. And I said, ‘Oh, OK, they’ll do what they can, he’s their soldier,’?” Ewing said. “And I wish I had listened to that person and taken him out of there last fall.”

The Martin and Ewing families’ ordeals played out in the weeks before the suspension and firing of Maj. Gen. Wayne Grigsby, the commander of Fort Riley. Grigsby remains under investigation, though the Army has been tight-lipped about the reason.

No evidence has come to light tying Grigsby’s ouster to either family’s ordeal. Regardless of the reason behind it, Martin’s and Ewing’s experiences point to a military bureaucracy that can be maddening for those attempting to navigate it.

Stephen Martin’s illness began in May 2015, when he began to experience numbness in his right hand and fingers.

His symptoms worsened during the summer, when he was deployed to Germany. By August, he was hospitalized.

He received a diagnosis of multifocal motor neuropathy, later changed to chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyradiculoneuropathy, or CIDP. His immune system was attacking his nerves.

According to a timeline Tracey Martin shared with members of Congress and others, Martin was moved in February 2016 to the Warrior Transition Battalion at Fort Riley. The idea, she said, was that he would be closer to her, only a few hours away in Joplin.

Warrior Transition Battalions at bases across the country were established after a 2007 scandal at Walter Reed. They were designed to help wounded and ill soldiers recover.

As the U.S. has decreased the number of military personnel deployed in combat overseas, the number of soldiers in the units has declined. Last year, the Army announced it would close 10 of the units.

But Martin didn’t begin to receive treatment immediately. He was sent to an appointment with a neurologist in late April, but by then, he had numbness and motor issues in both legs.

By May, Martin was told to stop driving. He had lost feeling from his knees down.

As summer wore on, he received only intermittent treatment. A July appointment was canceled.

“He calls me and says his treatment got canceled because the hospital was understaffed,” Tracey Martin said.

Increasingly frustrated, she decided to take action. In early August, she wrote to U.S. Rep. Billy Long, Sen. Roy Blunt and McCaskill, who sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee. In a letter dated Aug. 1, she said the Army had jeopardized her son’s treatment schedule.

“Every day this bureaucratic mess stalls out my son loses more of his mobility - and his hope of recovery,” Martin wrote. “None of this had to happen this way. If costs are a concern, how much more expensive will it to be to care for a soldier who has lost his mobility due to bureaucratic negligence?

“How do you explain that soldiers willing to risk life and limb fighting the enemy are instead losing life and limb to the brokenness of an army administration that seems like it can’t be bothered to fight for them?”

Martin also began to harness an ex-military contact to help fight the bureaucracy on her behalf. The leverage paid off.

Four days after McCaskill inquired about Martin’s situation, the Army agreed to temporarily move him to Walter Reed, said Sarah Feldman, a spokeswoman for the senator.

Martin’s stay at Walter Reed began Aug. 9, but he hadn’t yet obtained a permanent transfer to the facility.

Though Martin was able to travel to Walter Reed for consultation and some treatment, a transfer would allow permanent, ongoing treatment and rehabilitation. His orders would no longer come through Fort Riley.

Permission to transfer, which would come from Lt. Col. Doug Andresen, commander of the Warrior Transition Battalion, didn’t come easily. Emails between a senior nurse case manager in the battalion and a neurologist at Walter Reed demonstrate the difficulty.

The neurologist wrote that Martin doesn’t need to be at Walter Reed to receive infusions but does need them. The neurologist warned there should never be any prolonged delays between infusions, because each time Martin’s condition declined it would be increasingly difficult for him to regain neurological function.

“With the extent of disease he now has, he will likely never get back to his premorbid state. This is a chronic neurological condition, which will necessitate treatment well beyond his termination from active duty status,” the neurologist wrote.

The manager wrote that the battalion commander rarely signs exceptions to move soldiers, resulting in a request for more documents.

“I need substantiating reasons on why the soldier needs to be there under your care,” the case manager wrote. “We are able to provide the infusions for him at (Irwin Army Community Hospital). I am in support of the soldier staying there but I need valid reasons on WHY.”

Tracey Martin faults Andresen for declining to endorse transfer orders for her son - the last major hurdle to receiving full treatment at Walter Reed.

“Within a couple of days, Andresen decided he’s not going to sign it. So it turns into this big, ‘We’ve got to have all these meetings,’?” she said.

Martin mounted another push, and Andresen eventually endorsed the transfer. McCaskill’s office also appears to have been involved in making Stephen Martin’s transfer permanent.

Feldman said the Army had been forthcoming, helpful and willing to share updates with McCaskill’s office. While Martin’s situation was unacceptable, she said, based on the senator’s past work with constituents, the situation appeared to have been more of an anomaly than a systemic practice.

“Ensuring the active duty service members and veterans who served our country have access to the services and care they’ve earned is one of the most important parts of my job, and I’m glad we were able to work with the Army to help SPC Martin and his family cut through red tape to get him the quality, specialized care he needed,” McCaskill said in a statement.

The Army declined to comment, citing privacy laws.

Andresen didn’t respond to emailed questions but did appear to have received them. Several hours after a reporter emailed him, a spokesman for Irwin Army Community Hospital said he was aware of the email sent to Andresen.

A 2013 report by the Defense Department Inspector General found that soldiers in Fort Riley’s Warrior Transition Battalion waited an average of 540 days for disability determinations. The timeline for active duty soldiers was supposed to be 295 days. The Army said at the time that it was taking steps to improve.

Warrior Transition Units in other parts of the country have also faced questions. A 2014 investigation by The Dallas Morning News and Dallas’ NBC affiliate found hundreds of complaints had been registered with three WTUs in Texas during a five-year period, with many involving harassment.

“The Army recognized that we had challenges, that we had issues within our formations,” Col. Chris Toner, head of the Warrior Transition Command, which oversees the WTUs, told the newspaper at the time.

“We’re the Army. We’re hard on ourselves. We assess ourselves. When we determine there’s an issue to be resolved, we resolve it and we institute policies and programs.”

Stephen Martin remains at Walter Reed. His mother said he has received more appointments at Walter Reed than he ever had at Fort Riley. He has been undergoing extensive physical therapy and treatment, and he can now wiggle his toes.

As doctors work to reverse the physical toll of Stephen’s disease, the emotional damage lingers.

“At 22, the toll it’s taking on him is trying to look at what his life looks like with this disability,” Tracey Martin said.

“Some real hard discussions about marriage and family, and maybe now that’s not something he’s going to do - although it’s something he’s always wanted - because he doesn’t feel like he can place this burden on a wife and family.”

Sgt. Zach Ewing found a bump on his hand a couple of months before his October 2014 deployment to Iraq. Nothing showed on an X-ray, and with his unit ready to roll, command denied requests for further inspection.

But the bump got worse. After he deployed, he became unable to fire his weapon. He was sent to Germany, then back to the U.S. - to Fort Riley.

Ewing, described as an overachiever at work with an easygoing manner at home, had a rare form of cancer that normally afflicts only young children. Yet he didn’t immediately begin to receive treatment, his mother said.

“He sat there for several months waiting to get to a civilian doctor to perform the surgery,” Rebecca Ewing said.

By the time he started weekly chemotherapy sessions at the University of Kansas Hospital, the cancer had spread to his pelvis and femur, giving him a perhaps 20 percent chance of survival, she said.

The Army transferred Zach Ewing into the Warrior Transition Battalion as the cancer continued to spread. After his transfer, he didn’t see doctors until his condition had further deteriorated.

By June 2016, with the cancer continuing to spread, Rebecca Ewing had found a cancer center - MD Anderson in Texas - that was willing to take on her son. But the Army initially said no, she said.

“At that point, Zach had gotten pneumonia and we found out cancer had spread into his lungs as well,” Ewing said.

Ewing then sought outside intervention. Two civilians inserted themselves into her son’s case, she said.

After more than a month, Ewing got her son to MD Anderson.

“The soldiers deserve the best care. You’re putting a lot of money into training them and they sacrifice a lot to be a soldier. They deserve the best care,” Ewing said.

Zach Ewing died Aug 27. He was 24.

Whether earlier approval of transfer to MD Anderson or a quicker pace of treatment upon his arrival at Fort Riley might have saved his life is uncertain.

“Did they follow policy? Sure. Could they have done more? Absolutely,” Rebecca Ewing said.

A memorial service for Zach Ewing was held in September. Like Martin’s struggles, Ewing’s fight for her son remains fresh.

“It’s a lot to battle when you’re going to the commander and you’re battling and you’re being told one thing and the next day you’re being told it’s not going to happen and you still have to battle and scream,” Ewing said. “It’s a lot to do.”

___

Information from: The Topeka (Kan.) Capital-Journal, http://www.cjonline.com

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide