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Archive for Wednesday, August 13, 2003

Sick vet battles red tape at home

August 13, 2003

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— After Army Sgt. Vannessa Turner survived a still-unknown illness doctors feared would kill her, she thought her toughest battle was over.

But since a military flight brought Turner home she says she's had to fight to get medical treatment and can't even get personal items returned.

The homefront, she's finding, can be as daunting as the front lines in Iraq. "It's easier to stay a soldier and be in harm's way than to come home and get care," said Turner, her quiet voice quaking with emotion.

Arriving at her mother's home in Boston's Roxbury neighborhood last month after hospital stays in Germany and Washington, the six-year Army veteran says she was told that despite severe nerve damage in her right leg she'd have to wait until mid-October to see a doctor at the local Veterans Affairs hospital.

She sought help from Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., and eventually got an appointment scheduled this week, but the experience was frustrating for Turner and her family. They look at the hero's welcome given to former prisoner of war Pfc. Jessica Lynch, who was in one of Turner's rehabilitation sessions, and see a double standard.

"Some people are getting scholarships; my sister can't get a doctor's appointment," said her sister Nicole.

System overwhelmed

Veterans' advocates said Turner's frustration was not unusual. More than 110,000 veterans are waiting six months or more for their initial visit with a VA doctor or to see a specialist, the VA acknowledges.

VA undersecretary for health Robert Roswell said everyone who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom is entitled to two years of VA health care benefits. And the benefits are available to those wounded in combat as well as those injured in accidents or who suffer illnesses.

Army Sgt. Vannessa Turner is seen outside of the John F. Kennedy
federal building in Boston. Turner, who nearly died from a mystery
illness in Iraq, needed intervention from Sen. Edward Kennedy just
to get a doctor's appointment in the VA system.

Army Sgt. Vannessa Turner is seen outside of the John F. Kennedy federal building in Boston. Turner, who nearly died from a mystery illness in Iraq, needed intervention from Sen. Edward Kennedy just to get a doctor's appointment in the VA system.

He blamed Turner's treatment on errors at the VA's West Roxbury facility. Officials there failed to recognize her as a newly released veteran needing immediate care.

"We made an admitted mistake. But it was caught," Roswell said, adding that changes were being made so it wouldn't happen again.

Turner's ordeal started in Camp Balad, 42 miles north of Baghdad. Turner was suffering from severe mosquito bites when she collapsed May 18.

The next thing she knew medics were giving her shots, cutting off her clothes and rushing her to the hospital. As they wheeled the gurney down the hall, the 40-year-old Army cook could hear the doctor's terrifying words: "She's not going to make it."

"I tried to move my hand, I wanted to signal them -- I was trying to say, 'Hey, I'm alive, don't let me die.' But I couldn't move. I couldn't talk," Turner said.

Doctors still aren't sure what caused her illness, though they suspect it could have been a reaction to the ointment she used on the mosquito bites.

Family's concern

Turner's recovery presented a new set of problems for her family. Because of her severe condition, the military quickly classified her as medically retired so her 15-year-old daughter, Brittany, could get increased benefits.

But because Turner no longer was an active member of the military, the Pentagon couldn't transport her family to her bedside in Landstuhl, Germany, where Turner had been airlifted for treatment.

"They told me she had no heartbeat, that she wasn't breathing," said Turner's mother, Beverly. "They said she had 36 to 72 hours to live."

Turner's family couldn't afford airline tickets so they turned to Kennedy and Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., for help. Through their offices family members got flights to Germany courtesy of the United Service Organizations, and they received lodging and food from the Fisher House Foundation, which provides housing for military families.

Turner's fitness aided her recovery. An avid weightlifter, she began to improve and by the end of May was flown to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, where she stayed for about six weeks before going to her mother's home.

For Turner, the work to rehabilitate the damaged nerves in her leg is compounded by confusion over her benefits, her quest for a doctor, and the Pentagon's initial assertions that she go back to Germany herself to get her belongings.

Turner is hesitant about the future. A year from now she'll go before a military board to see whether she's well enough to be reinstated. "Half my brain says yes, half my brain says no," she said. "But, ma'am, I'm a soldier. I love being a soldier. This is what I do."

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