Staff Sgt. Howard LeRoy Hizer made it back from Iraq with a Bronze Star in November 2003, but he's still fighting to get healthy and get home.
More than a year after the rest of his Florida National Guard unit returned to civilian life, the St. Cloud reservist has a drawer full of medications, a Jeep with 265,000 miles on it and a bed in a 16-man trailer on a military base 300 miles from his family.
Hizer, 41, was called to active duty in December 2002 and served 11 months as an infantry-squad leader in the Persian Gulf before being sent to Fort Stewart, Ga., because of severe back and neck injuries. He was hurt when he fell from a truck on its way to help a military-police unit that had been attacked.
The staff sergeant, an Osceola County volunteer firefighter who works at St. Cloud's wastewater-treatment plant in civilian life, is now into his second year of what the military calls "medical holdover." He gets his military pay and free treatment for his injuries, but except for the time he spends on leave, he can't return to his wife and two young children.
"He's very frustrated, and I'm beyond frustration," said his wife, Lynette Hizer, a registered nurse. "He is back in the States, that's true, but he's not home."
Col. Barbara Scherb of U.S. Army Forces Command in Atlanta acknowledged last week that at least 15 wounded or injured Iraq veterans who were among the first to arrive at Fort Stewart have been blocked from seeking treatment at home, even though other soldiers in similar circumstances have been allowed to do so.
The bureaucratic knot, which the colonel described as "very complex budgetary and statutory problem all wrapped up in legalese" should be untied by the end of February, the colonel said. She said efforts to untangle the red tape had been going on for a year.
The military spent millions to increase medical staff and to improve living conditions at Fort Stewart and other bases after injured Reserve and National Guard troops returning from Iraq complained to members of Congress and the media about unequal and poor treatment in fall 2002.
Last spring, the Army also unveiled a $23 million Community-Based Health Care Organization to relieve overburdened bases by allowing soldiers such as Hizer to get medical treatment near their homes.
Care can be obtained either at nearby military hospitals or from local doctors and medical centers affiliated with the military's Tricare health-maintenance program.
Hizer, whose job is being held open for him by St. Cloud officials, has petitioned repeatedly to get into the community-care program, but so far his requests have been denied.
"I just want to get fixed so I can go home and pursue my job," he said. "It's almost like they want to wait you out until you just say you want to quit and go home."
Currently, 1,455 active-duty Guard and Reserves -- of about 4,850 on medical-holdover status nationwide -- are in the community-care program, which has proved so successful that it is already close to capacity.
It is now being expanded to serve up to 4,000 soldiers in all 50 states and Puerto Rico, Scherb said.
The community-care headquarters for Florida, Georgia and North Carolina is in the National Guard Armory in Plant City. Since April, staff workers in Plant City have helped more than 280 Reserve and Guard soldiers on medical-holdover status find treatment closer to home, said the officer in charge, Lt. Col. Bruce Cornelison.
His unit of 31 medical and support staff soon will be increased by 10 so they can oversee the care of as many as 400 soldiers.
"It's been so popular, it has been a challenge, but we have not turned anybody down," Cornelison said.
Injured and wounded soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan need to reconnect with their families and their support systems, so allowing them to get medical treatment while still working a military job but living at home allows for a smoother transition to civilian life, Scherb said.
"We have discovered that sending soldiers home works better just as a matter of policy and practice," she said.
Hizer and other medical holdovers at Fort Stewart agree, and they can't understand why they haven't been allowed to enter Scherb's program even as newer arrivals at the base are welcomed into it.
'Tearing my family apart'
There are still 157 National Guard or Reserve soldiers on medical holdover at Fort Stewart. Though living conditions and medical treatment there have improved considerably since the complaints surfaced three years ago, Hizer and others wounded or injured soldiers from Florida said they feel more like prisoners than patients.
"I fought for this country, but now I'm in a situation that is tearing my family apart. I've already done two years away from home, and I'm looking at another year now," said Guard member Hubert Aris, 38, of Fort Lauderdale, who has been on medical-holdover status at Fort Stewart since March.
Shortly after he returned a year ago from an 11-month tour in Iraq, National Guard Sgt. Bob Gipson, 44, of Tampa heard a presentation on the community-based health-care program that gave him hope of seeing more of his 3-year-old.
"The people who run the program were here, and they said, 'Everybody from Florida, pack your bags because you are coming home.' But I've tried to get into the program, and they say I can't go. It's crazy," said Gipson, a 23-year military veteran and former Army Ranger who injured his leg, back and neck when diving from a Humvee under fire in Iraq.
Soldiers are kept in medical-holdover status while doctors assess and treat them so they can be returned to duty, reassigned or discharged with disabilities.
Hizer and others at Fort Stewart said the methodical and labyrinthine process seems more designed to drive Guard and Reserve veterans out of the military system.
It took Hizer more than a year and more than 140 appointments to finally get an examination with a neurosurgeon -- and he had to travel more than three hours to a veterans hospital in Augusta, Ga., for that meeting.
"One of the neurosurgeon's first questions to me was, 'What have you been doing this past year?' It was like, 'Where have you been?' " he recalled.
Fort Stewart officials have also sent him to a pain clinic in Statesboro, Ga., about 50 miles from the base, and to a neurologist in Brunswick, Ga., 60 miles away, he noted.
Yet, one of the reasons given for keeping Hizer at Fort Stewart is that the base is the only place he can get the medical care he needs, he said.
Several tries for admission
The Guard member from St. Cloud has made repeated attempts to be assigned to the community-based care program in Plant City, but his supervisors have rejected his request each time, he said.
"The first time they said I was ineligible because I had missed medical appointments. So I got copies of my 148 appointments, and I hadn't missed any," he said.
His supervisors next said that he couldn't participate in the Plant City program because he had been uncooperative.
"I got a memorandum from the department head of behavioral health, which said I'd done what I was supposed to do," he said.
Next, Hizer was turned down because of claims that he hadn't been a model soldier.
"But they couldn't produce any documentation to support that -- and my own commanding officer in Iraq put me up for a Bronze Star. How do you become any more of a model than that?" he asked.
Former National Guard 1st Lt. Ted Pratchios, 33, of Jacksonville was Hizer's platoon leader in Iraq. Now a civilian, Pratchios recalled that he recommended Hizer for the Bronze Star based on his coolheaded leadership of his nine-man squad, often under fire.
Even after his injury, Hizer stayed with his men and rose above his pain and discomfort, according to Pratchios.
"The rest of us who did not get hurt have been demobilized and gone back to our civilian lives," said Hizer's former platoon leader.
"I can't believe he is still at Fort Stewart. It's like guys are being punished for being hurt," Pratchios said. "Certainly there is something not working the way it should be there."
'We appreciate feedback'
There are two primary reasons that medical-holdover soldiers are not allowed into the home-based program, Scherb said.
Some may be turned down if the medical care they need is not available where they live, or if their treatment is so far along that sending them home would delay their recovery, she said.
Hizer more likely has been forced to stay at Fort Stewart because he and 34 others in the first wave of medical holdovers voluntarily signed up for active-duty medical extensions. That was an earlier medical program that was funded differently, which might have prevented some of the otherwise qualified soldiers from being transferred to the community-care program, Scherb said.
The colonel said Army officials have worked for more than a year to untangle the red tape.
"We are really trying to fix that, and we appreciate the feedback from the individual soldiers," she said. "We keep trying to make things better."
Wes Smith can be reached at 407-420-5672 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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