I cannot in good conscience remain silent about the treatment of our wounded and injured service members and their families. I am writing this letter on behalf of my husband Sgt. Thomas Lee. He medically retired from the Delaware National Guard’s 153rd MP Company in August 21, 2016. He deployed to Afghanistan January to September 2013. Upon returning from deployment he was sent to the Wounded Transition Battalion (WTB) at Fort Belvoir, VA in October 2013 for neck, back, shoulder, skin and stomach issues. The time frame for service members to spend at the WTB is approximately 12 months; my husband was there for 3 years. When my husband arrived, there were around 300 service members there. Every service member is assigned a nurse case manager who oversees the scheduling of appointments and does weekly check-ins with them. The nurse case manager’s job is to support and facilitate the care of service members; however, often they are misleading and at times lying to get information which is used by the command against the service members. The WTB does not promote an atmosphere of healing but rather one of harassment and punishment, where they provide the bare minimum of care, distribute medications and focus on the symptoms rather than diagnose and treat the actual issues. The WTB along with Fort Belvoir Community Hospital has failed my husband along with countless other service members. Our service members and families sacrifice so much for our country and it is a shame to see how they get treated when they return from combat broken physically and mentally.
My husband and I lived through a nightmare for the past 3 years, he was fortunate enough to survive 2 deployments only to be permanently disabled by a military doctor here in the states. Do you know what it’s like to watch helplessly someone you love whose served their country go from injured to permanently damaged and not to be able to hold any one accountable? My husband came to the WTB with 2 careers, 21 years with the Postal Service and 18 years of military service, he left the WTB unable to return to either career. Below are the events that forever changed our lives.
- On October 18th, 2013 my husband underwent a colonoscopy at Fort Belvoir Comm. Hospital (FBCH). On November 19th, 2013 we received a letter stating that contaminated scopes had been used and he would have to undergo 6 months of blood work to monitor for infectious diseases.
- On December 26th, 2013 while on leave he awoke to a very swelled and painful face resulting in an emergency trip from our home 170 miles away to the dental clinic at FBCH. My husband had been at the dental clinic four times in December complaining of a toothache. A split tooth had been missed by the dental clinic and as a result he had developed a serious infection. The tooth had to be pulled due to the infection and high doses of antibiotics were prescribed.
- On April 15th, 2014 he underwent a CT Myelogram for his neck and back at FBCH. At the time they refused to do a MRI because of lead shot in my husband’s neck from a previous hunting accident in 2003. The CT Myelogram was performed by Dr. Seltzer. A blood patch was not done and he was released shortly after the procedure. The following day he became incoherent due to a spinal headache resulting from leaking spinal fluid from the CT Myelogram. He was taken by ambulance from the Warrior Clinic to the emergency department at FBCH. They gave him IV caffeine and released him. He returned to the emergency department at FBCH the next day and finally a blood patch was performed. My husband has suffered daily headaches and severe migraines since that procedure.
- On September 19th, 2014 my husband underwent a C5/C6 spinal fusion performed by Dr. Moore at FBCH. We were told multiple times by Dr. Moore that surgery went routinely and easily. On September 21st, 2014 my husband was released from FBCH to come home on convalescent leave. My husband became very sick and by September 24th, 2014 I had to take him to Upper Chesapeake Hospital near our home because he was too sick to make the 2 ½-3 hour trip back to Fort Belvoir. My husband was seen by Dr. McCoy in the emergency department at Upper Chesapeake Hospital who ordered a CT scan with dye. The CT scan showed a collection of fluid along with an air bubble pushing on his carotid and jugular arteries. We were told had we waited any longer my husband could have suffered a stroke. My husband was denied transport to Walter Reed even though it was the closest medical military facility. When Dr. McCoy contacted FBCH emergency department they had never even heard of their surgeon, Dr. Moore so we waited 3 hours just to get approval for my husband to be transported back to FBCH. We spent 16 hours in emergency departments that day.
- Beginning in November 2014 a month after his spinal fusion my husband noticed his left leg began randomly giving out. By December 2014 it had worsened to the point he had to use a cane to prevent falling. His headaches became so frequent that he had to start wearing sunglasses constantly, inside and outside. Also, he started noticing numbness and tingling in his left arm and leg with certain movement of his neck. I spent the next year fighting and advocating tirelessly for the care my husband deserved. I told every doctor we saw at FBCH as well as Walter Reed that something was wrong and that nerve damage had been done during the surgery, no one took us seriously. I was traveling at least once a week from our home which is 240 miles round trip to attend all my husband’s doctor appointments because frankly I lost all faith and trust in the healthcare system of our military. In 19 months we spent over $ 11,000 in travel expenses. The anguish and frustration this caused my husband and our family cannot be put into words and it exasperated the PTSD my husband was also suffering from, which the Army called “anxiety”. Despite having his care switched to Walter Reed, there was no resolution to my husband’s conditions and they only treated the symptoms. No one has ever accepted responsibility or apologized for the damage from the surgery.
- On March 25th, 2015 we were scheduled to meet with Col. Allison, Director of Medicine at FBCH along with a conflict resolution person but when we arrived we were blindsided and told we would be meeting with Dr. Moore, the surgeon who performed my husband’s spinal fusion. We were unprepared and believe it was done on purpose. Dr. Moore tried to blame my husband’s condition on degenerative changes to C7 but after researching my husband’s medical records I found that not to be true and Dr. Moore was fully aware of that also. There was a spinal impingement at C7 prior to surgery and the previous tests showed that a C4-C7 fusion was recommended.
- On April 23rd, 2015 we did get to meet with Col. Allison at FBCH. We had asked for my husband’s medical board to be put on hold because he had serious medical issues stemming from the failed spinal fusion that needed to be addressed. We took 3 things away from the meeting with Col. Allison. First, Col. Allison stated he was in a hurry and did not have time to hear our concerns. Secondly, we had to prove our case for the MEB to be put on hold. Lastly, Col. Allison believed Dr. Moore was a good doctor. After having our concerns ignored I decided to reach out to the Delaware National Guard, since we were a Delaware Guard family. They put me in touch with Delaware Senator Chris Coon’s office. Over the past 3 years nine Congressional inquiries have been filed by Senator Coon’s office on our behalf.
- On May 6, 2015 we saw Dr. Witham, a neuro spine surgeon at John Hopkins per our request to be seen by a civilian doctor. He told us that my husband’s case was very complicated because he had already had a spinal fusion that wasn’t successful and success rates go down each time you have to go back in. The nerve damage causing the leg to give out was not reversible and he wasn’t sure the headaches would improve. Dr. Witham ordered his own tests which found C7 to be herniated and he recommended that C4-C7 be done, which is what was supposed to have been done originally. He also found that there had been no sign of the bone fusing from the spinal fusion. After several discussions with Dr. Witham a surgery date was scheduled for the C4-T1 spinal fusion. We continued to ask that my husband’s MEB be postponed until after the surgery, considering the recovery for this type of surgery is 6 months to a year. The command at the WTB assured us that if the surgery had to be done that the MEB could be put on hold. Two weeks prior to the surgery we met with Co. Commander, Capt. Heath, Battalion Surgeon, Lt.Col. Dinneman, Battalion Commander, Lt. Col. Tulafula along with folks from the Delaware National Guard as well as the National Guard Bureau. After leading us to believe for 7 months that they would put the MEB on hold, they told us that they did not have the authority to do so. So, while my husband was trying to recover from a second spinal fusion within a year the MEB process would continue regardless.
- On May 13th, 2015 out of complete frustration I wrote a letter regarding my husband’s situation and sent it to every senator in the country as well as Dr. Jill Biden since she was also a part of the Delaware National Guard family. Out of the 100 letters I sent, I only received 6 responses and those responding stated that I didn’t live in their state so they couldn’t help me. I never heard from Dr. Biden. Included in my letter was the fact that 2 service members from WTB in one week took their own lives. One happened at the WTB barracks parking lot and the second service member had recently been sent back to his unit from the WTB at Fort Belvoir. Both were suffering behavioral health issues, Fort Belvoir failed them, the Army failed them and our elected officials have failed them.
- On October 19th, 2015 my husband underwent his second spinal fusion at John’s Hopkins Hospital. Dr. Witham told us after the surgery that the hardware from the first fusion was loose which could have been causing some of my husband’s pain. My husband spent 2 weeks in Hopkins struggling with recovery and he was admitted to the inpatient rehabilitation at John’s Hopkins where he received intense rehab. He struggled with weakness and his left leg continued to give out. Watching my husband suffer tremendous pain and struggle to just walk short distances without assistance because of the weakness in his left leg was devastating for me. Due to the leg giving out, my husband was a high fall risk and had to use a walker. We were told by the doctors at Hopkins that had my husband’s leg been treated previously than some of the damage could have been prevented. My husband was sent home from John’s Hopkins for convalescent leave on October 30th, 2015. We would spend the next 7 months traveling back and forth from our home to Hopkins for intense outpatient occupational and physical therapy. We also would have to travel to Fort Belvoir for check-in with his primary care doctor.
- We saw Dr. Witham, my husband’s surgeon after the 3 month mark and he recommended another 3 months of convalescent leave, because traveling the 5-6 hours roundtrip to Virginia was very difficult for my husband and he was still in a neck brace. The command at the WTB disagreed with the decision of our surgeon at Hopkins regarding the extension of convalescent leave and instead they decided to accuse my husband of lying to the surgeon as their reason for denying any additional leave. I was outraged that the command who had misled us for 7 months would accuse my husband of lying. The surgeon at Hopkins wrote a letter stating that my husband never misled or lied to him, which we submitted to command. My husband isn’t even allowed to drive without someone in the vehicle with him due to range of motion issues in his neck so for the next 4 months I was traveling every Friday to pick him up to bring him home and taking him back on Sunday’s. We were seeing doctors at Hopkins 3x a week and instead of allowing my husband to be at home where I was caring for him and taking him to all his appointments he was being transported from Virginia to Hopkins 3-4 days a week. The left leg became the focus of his physical therapy, due to the nerve damage from the initial spinal fusion performed by FBCH. The team of doctors at Hopkins decided that my husband would need a brace for the leg in order to get him off the walker. This brace runs from his hip down into his shoe and is for the rest of his life! The nerve damage my husband has suffered due to the negligence of a military doctor has forever changed my husband’s life and has affected other organs.
Our situation is not unique, what is unique is that I have stood and fought and will continue to fight. Most service members at the WTB are young and have no advocates; they are being misled, misinformed and frankly lied to and as a result leave the military in worst shape then they arrived. I understand congressional inquiries are a tool used by our elected officials but you’re asking the Army to investigate itself and that is part of the problem. What is happening to our service members at Fort Belvoir’s WTB is an atrocity and needs to be investigated by someone other than the military. It’s been made very clear to me that the military doesn’t care, our President doesn’t care and neither do our United States Senators (other than Sen. Coons) so maybe our media will care. I am prepared to contact every news agency in this country in order to bring about awareness and change. I don’t want what has happened to my husband and our family and countless other military families to continue to happen. In closing, my husband has lifelong challenges ahead of him as a result of a botched surgery performed by Dr. Moore at Ft. Belvoir Community Hospital. We continue to seek treatment and spend countless days either at doctor appointments or scheduling appointments. Stories like ours need to be told but more importantly we need someone to listen. I hope you will stand with me and demand answers. I look forward to hearing from you and appreciate your time.
(wife of Retired Sgt. Thomas Lee)
Rising Sun, MD