Army Acts to Curb Abuses of Injured Recruits
By RALPH BLUMENTHAL
Published: May 12, 2006
LAWTON, Okla. — The Army has shaken up a program to heal recruits injured in
basic training after soldiers and their parents said troops hurt at Fort
Sill were punished with physical abuse and medical neglect.
The program, which treated more than 1,100 injured soldiers last year at
five posts, normally returns three-fourths of its patients to active duty,
according to Army statistics. But at Fort Sill, recruits said, injuries were
often subject to derision, ignored or improperly treated.
Two soldiers in the program have died since 2004, one or possibly both of
accidental overdoses of prescription drugs. The latest death, in March,
remains under investigation, the Army said.
"I am an inmate," one soldier, Pfc. Mathew Scarano of Eureka, Calif., wrote
in a letter home in January two months before he died. "I sometimes ask
those friends of mine with jailhouse tattoos if they'd rather be back in
jail, or here. So far, they are unanimous — jail."
Commanders acknowledge problems with the Physical Training and
Rehabilitation Program, and they have ordered changes here at the Field
Artillery Center and at the other training centers. For the first time, as a
result of the Fort Sill problems, a medical professional is to head each
A civilian spokesman at the fort, Jon Long, said an investigation had
substantiated "misbehavior" by a drill sergeant who, soldiers say, kicked a
trainee with stitches in his knee. Mr. Long said the sergeant had been
suspended and reassigned, along with another drill sergeant who, soldiers
complained, had repeatedly awakened injured trainees throughout the night
for uniform changes and formations.
The events, after a drill sergeant's bribery scandal last year and a drug
sting that ensnared 12 soldiers, have thrown a cloud over Fort Sill, one of
the centers for nine weeks of basic training where volunteers first report
on the way to Iraq or elsewhere. G.I.'s who fall prey to sprains and
fractures and cannot complete the often grueling passage to "warrior" are
sent to the Physical Training and Rehabilitation Program, where a motto
reads "Heal and Ship."
Soldiers' blogs reflect dissatisfaction at some of the other programs, too,
but Lt. Col. Michael Russell, command psychologist at the Training and
Doctrine Command in Fort Monroe, Va., who was involved in the new therapy,
said just Fort Sill had had a fatality or major complaints. The other sites
are Fort Benning, Ga.; Fort Jackson, S.C.; Fort Knox, Ky.; and Fort Leonard
"Of course, we take anything like that very seriously," Colonel Russell
said. "We're going to put medical people in charge." At Fort Sill, an
artillery captain has been in charge.
The Army now limits treatments to six months, with evaluations after three
months and then monthly.
In interviews, soldiers and parents said injured troops regularly suffered
punitive treatment as malingerers, although many had joined specifically to
serve in Iraq.
A trainee with a broken finger who was described by fellow soldiers as
frustrated by indifferent treatment, slashed himself with a razor, smeared
himself with feces and walked around naked, the Army confirmed. Regarded as
faking illness, he was returned to his unit to finish training.
Soldiers in the 40-member unit said their injuries often went unattended in
stays that exceeded six months and worsened while they waited to see
specialists in short supply because of medical needs in Iraq.
"I don't want to say cruel and unusual punishment, but that's what it was,"
said Tom Nugent of Candor, N.Y., near Ithaca. His son Pvt. Justin Nugent has
had two operations since a shoulder "popped out" after push-ups in July.
Another parent, Steven Howell, an aide to Representative Mark Souder,
Republican of Indiana, said he and his wife had complained about the
treatment of their son Clayton, who has spent a year in the "limbo" of the
program after a gallbladder attack. "My main concern as a parent is that
medical issues are not being addressed properly," Mr. Howell said.
One mother critical of the war who had an injured son in the unit and
another son serving in Iraq, appealed to Amnesty International and members
of Congress for help. The mother, Patricia deVarennes, from outside
Sarasota, Fla., brought to light the complaints about her son Pfc. Richard
Thurman by posting them on her blog, along with Private Scarano's final
They were then reported in a March issue of a biweekly left-wing newsletter,
"The supreme irony," said Ms. deVarennes, a writer and computer specialist,
"is that I was more worried about my son at Fort Sill than the one in Iraq."
Colonel Russell credited Ms. deVarennes with bringing the problems to his
In e-mail responses to questions, Mr. Long, the Fort Sill spokesman,
confirmed that an investigation focused on accusations of physical and
verbal abuse. He declined to discuss details because no one had been charged
with a crime. But Mr. Long said the initial findings did substantiate the
reports of misbehavior by the drill sergeant, who was said to have kicked
the soldier and who along with another drill sergeant received
"administrative disciplinary action."
The findings, Mr. Long said, also pointed to "command climate issues" that
allowed cursing at injured soldiers. He said none of the physical or verbal
abuse had been directed at Private Scarano or was involved with his death.
Mr. Long said it might be weeks before a toxicology report provided an
official cause of death.
He said that in July 2004 a private in the program was found to have died
from "acute methadone intoxication" after an accidental overdose.
Fort Sill, where up to 15,000 troops a year are trained and sent to active
duty, had already been brushed by problems. In January 2005, a longtime
drill sergeant was convicted of taking bribes to guarantee that recruits
would pass basic training.
In October, the first of 12 present and former soldiers at the post were
caught in an F.B.I. sting and charged with conspiring to guard cocaine
shipments while in uniform.
The fort commander, Maj. Gen. David C. Ralston, said he was confident that
the leadership of the healing program took the correct actions after a
thorough investigation. General Ralston said he was pleased with the
improvements at Fort Sill, where the success rate was 75 percent, one of the
highest for the training centers.
"Although this is a very good track record," the general added, "there will
always be challenges to taking so many young adults and giving them the
rigorous training they need to serve successfully in our nation's Army and
to win on the battlefield."
In letters home, Private Scarano, who severely injured his shoulder in a
fall in training, said he was wearing a patch with the painkiller fentanyl,
which he called "80 times stronger than heroin," and also wrote: "The Army
has me on Ambien, seroquel, tylox and oxycontins. I also get trazadone to
take the edge off."
At that time, Mr. Long said, soldiers were not monitored while taking
medication. Now, they are closely supervised. In another change, he said, a
patient advocate has been assigned to monitor lengths of stay.
Interviewed on visiting weekend in April, Private Thurman, Ms. deVarennes's
son, said he had passed an alternative physical fitness test that replaced
running with walking. But after graduating basic training in November with
his family at the ceremony, he said, he and two other soldiers were "ungraduated"
and put into the Physical Training and Rehabilitation Program. He was
belatedly found to have suffered stress fractures in his feet.
Mr. Long confirmed the confusion over the acceptability of the alternative
Private Thurman, who has completed more than four months in the program and
has been sent to his first duty station as a computer artilleryman, and
other soldiers said morale plummeted around mid-January with the arrival of
a new drill sergeant, Robert Langford.
On the Martin Luther King's Birthday holiday weekend, with the rest of the
post off duty, Sergeant Langford ordered the therapy unit to move out the
bunk beds and lockers and hand scrape the wax off the floor tiles. When the
results were not to his liking, the soldiers said, the sergeant had them
redo it. While scraping, Private Scarano cracked his injured shoulder, he
The kicking episode occurred about that time, soldiers said, when Sergeant
Langford ordered an injured private, Damien McMahon, 21, of Emporia, Kan,
"to take a knee," or bow, after losing his temper in a formation. Private
McMahon, who had had knee surgery for a staph infection and was also in
disciplinary trouble for sneaking to the PX on a tobacco run, said the
investigators had asked him not to discuss the case. But he confirmed
accounts by fellow soldiers that he had protested that kneeling was painful
and that the sergeant had kicked him in his bad knee, loosening one of nine
Sergeant Langford, reached by telephone at home at Fort Sill, refused to
discuss the accusations and denied that he had been suspended before hanging
Also around January, soldiers said, another drill sergeant, Troy Bullock,
suspected that a soldier in the unit had sneaked a cigarette and ordered the
entire injury unit woken up every hour from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. for uniform
changes and formations, even though some patients were on heavy sleep
medications, the soldiers said. Mr. Long said he could not comment, and no
telephone listing for Sergeant Bullock could be found.
On March 7, in an e-mail note to Ms. deVarennes later put on her blog,
Private Scarano said, "I am a casualty of a broken system; I fell through
the cracks of the bureaucracy."
If he could get out at least temporarily, Private Scarano said, he wanted to
explore a more promising civilian procedure to repair his shoulder "instead
of being a guinea pig to a medical system I have no faith in, whatever."