14 May 2007


Sister Soldier: A Chronicle of Life After Iraq

In 2004, Army Sergeant First Class, Charles Frenzel was deployed to Iraq to do what all soldiers do, fight for their country. Except he’s returned from his tour of duty and he’s still fighting….for his health, his DOE civilian job has been abolished, his full retirement pay has been whittled away, and it’s nearly wiped him out financially. And all because he served his country….

When Frenzel was deployed to Iraq in September 2004 he was stationed at Camp Caldwell in Kirkush. Where the blue skies were replaced with endless clouds of black smoke from a nearby brick factory (pictured above). The factory’s 150 - foot tall smoke stacks billowed a hazardous environmental cocktail of smoke laced with crude oil. That not only the soldiers were drinking in….but the Iraqi women, children and dogs. “It looked like middle of the night when it was mid day. Black smoke billowed over the landscape,” Frenzel recalled. “We know with strong indication there was a chemical laboratory there. My suspicion is the brick factory was their version of a social employment program where the unemployed would be sent to make bricks. Because we [the soldiers] encountered a large number of women, young and old, with 6 – 7 year-old children tagging along at the brick factory, helping their mothers with donkeys and carts.” Frenzel observed.

By July 2005 10 months into his tour, Frenzel began experiencing memory loss and sinus problems. The vision in his right eye regressed and he became partially blind, compounded by the loss of control of motor nerves and his balance off kilter. “When I sat down to eat I could no longer use a knife and fork. Just trying to balance the food on a fork and bring it to my mouth was impossible,” Frenzel remembered. “It was a labor to write something down as I had lost the ability in my right hand to write. So, I taught myself how to write with my left hand.”

Because his equilibrium was off, Frenzel fell into a 7-foot concrete ditch at Camp Caldwell. “Thereafter I began dragging my right foot. I felt something loose at the sole of my foot. The arch support had fallen from dragging it and I had developed a callous on the bottom of my foot,” Frenzel explained. Pre-deployment, before Frenzel was activated he underwent his routine bi-annual physicals with the DOE contractor, [over 100 complete physicals in 27 years] and was deemed fit-for-duty. The doctor remarked that the 59 year-old Texan was ‘in excellent shape and had the health of a 45 year-old.’

With the urging of his battalion mates to see the camp doctor about his right leg, it was October before he finally went to “Charlie Med.” Upon examination the Medic performed a vision test in which he failed. It flagged the doctor of a more serious and underlining health concern and within weeks his orders came and Frenzel was medEvac out. Because they didn’t have the facilities in theatre to order a CT Scan, Frenzel was sent to the Army hospital in Landstuhl, Germany. Where a CT Scan would uncover in the right rear section of his brain a monstrous sheet size tumor (8.5 cm x 4.5 cm) pressing on the left lobe of his brain. By spreading itself into Frenzel’s brain cavity it effected his memory and limited his ability to eat or walk. Four days later he was medEvac to Washington, D.C. to undergo surgery at Walter Reed Army Medical Center [WRAMC].

At the end of October 2005, with his wife of 15 years, Mickie and children by his side, Frenzel was admitted for surgery. The tumor, a non-malignant Meningioma was removed. When the surgery ended, the complications and infections began, as did the lost documents and communication breakdowns with Med Hold, compounded by an emerging Post Traumatic Stress Disorder [PTSD]. Frenzel feared without his wife by his side ‘WRAMC would have discharged him to the streets of D. C.’

Around mid December, after two months of constant oversights and unfair treatment to this new OIF [Operation Iraqi Freedom] Vet, Frenzel was ordered home for convalescent leave. With metal implants in his scull, Christmas approaching, appointments scheduled with neurology for follow-ups and an MRI booked the week before and after Christmas…it was impossible for him and his family to leave WRAMC for Texas. And the expense of doing so would have fallen on his shoulders. So Frenzel waited until the follow-ups were complete and asked for his 30-day leave---in which he was denied. They reached out to their Congressman Thornberry (Rep. – TX) and explained the situation. The Congressman was able to break though some of the military red tape and get the soldier home for 30 days.

The first of February they returned to WRAMC to resume Frenzel’s medical treatments and rehabilitation post surgery. They stayed in Maryland till April 2005 at WRAMC Fisher House at the Forrest Glen base. Which allowed them to stay close by while he healed without worry of exorbitant hotel expenses. Frenzel added, “When the medical aspect was all said and done, I could not de-mobilize from Walter Reed. I had to be sent to Ft. Jackson, S.C. I should have really been sent to Camp Shelby, M.S. as that was where the unit I was assigned to mobilize from. When my unit returned from Iraq they were de-mobilized through Camp Shelby, and were immediately screened for health problems from their tour. Since I was not de-mobilized with them, there may have been other toxicities I was exposed to that went undetected upon my admission to WRAMC. Possibly resulting in further health complications down the road.” Because of this, Frenzel’s claim with the VA has been detained and is having difficulty claiming disability.

Overall, Frenzel praised the state-of-the-art medical care he received at WRAMC saying, ‘it is the best in the world.’ Even though he thought he was leaving the military behind and stepping back into the life that waited for him. He discovered six months after returning home to Texas, that the muck had clung to his boots trailing into his “welcome home.” Still under immense stress, he was fired from his civilian job of 27 years as an armed Security Police Officer [SPO] for a DOE contractor BWXT. Their reason being; a federal regulation states that: ‘one cannot be a Government Police Officer if they have metal implants, therefore he is disqualified.’ Frenzel acquired the metal plates in his head from the surgery, which was a direct result of his time in Iraq, as was his long-term exposure to unknown chemicals. An obvious war wound he and the other soldiers are facing as Veteran’s, and unacknowledged by the DoD.

There have been other soldiers returning to their civilian jobs at the DOE site where Frenzel was employed. They were assisted in finding equal paying positions, or have been transferred to desk jobs. But because Frenzel was due to retire in 2006, they gave him an ultimatum; accept a position that paid $40,000 less per year or be fired. In fear the contractor BWXT would forfeit his retirement, in 2005 Frenzel took it early.

“I don’t brude over it…but it is an outrage. A good portion of us [OIF Vet’s] have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder [PTSD], and to diagnose me, all the VA is concerned with is if I’ve seen someone killed and if so when. I think it’s caused by the anxiety, the consequence of being a part of the whole war experience. You say a silent prayer when someone is hurt in combat and you go on. It produces enormous stress,” Frenzel concedes.

Frenzel’s union contract guaranteed him six months short-term disability and two years long term disability, both of which were denied. And the 1,500 hours of sick leave he accumulated during his 27-year position---has vanished. His wife Mickie has returned to work doing what she had done in what was once the family business, and is appalled by the type of treatment they have encountered by the DOE government contractor, BWXT. She exclaimed, This is what they think of returning Vets!”

In late March of 2007 Frenzel’s old family doctor noticed he was coughing a lot and had a runny nose. He sent him for chest X-rays and discovered spots on his lungs. A small brain tumor has recently appeared on his MRI. And there is also a hole where the tumor pressed against the brain. He hopes it’s scar tissue, a natural residue at the post surgical site. “It’s obvious the toxins were already there, but WRAMC didn’t look for them. So the emphazema wasn’t detected until I came back to Texas. And WRAMC told me verbally to have scans every 3 – 6 months, but failed to scribe those instructions in my chart, so the VA never followed-up,” Frenzel grieved. His right foot still bothers him so he now wears a cushion in his shoe so as not to drag himself with a cane. His head injuries have healed and he no longer oozes blood and pus on the pillow at night. He’s also showing a slight sign of hypertension. The VA still hasn’t addressed the titanium plates in his head with their compensation claims.

Since he’s been home, Frenzel has been receiving his health care from his Tri-Care Prime Insurance. Because of his years of military service he is eligible for the private coverage [BWXT insurance coverage would be over $1,000 per month]. But feels the whole military medical system and VA medical system is over burdened. “Because the American people aren’t aware of what it takes to care for these soldiers returning from Iraq and what we’ve been exposed to. In Iraq they told us that the ground we were standing on was contaminated. So the health problems some of the soldiers are coming back with is stupefying, because you don’t know if they have emphazema, cancer, parasites or are MRSA positive. A lot of these diseases are very difficult to detect and the VA doesn’t want to pay for the tests because the American people don’t want to commit to the money necessary,” Frenzel stated.

He continued, “The American public will come up to you and shake your hand and say thank you. But they are unaware of what the soldiers coming home and their families are going through---they’re completely out of touch to what real life is for us. They expect someone to do the fighting for them. One lady said to me, ‘You signed the enlistment, you knew what could happen.’ America is the original land of scams---they look around for a fool to go to the fights. That’s what they’re expecting, someone who is stupid enough to go and fight for them.”

Frenzel like most soldiers was stunned upon returning to the states. He thought he’d find everything the same---but it all changed. “I anticipated returning to my family and going back to my old job. After over 25 years there, I have a lot of dear friends. They were the ones who set me up with a neurologist when I returned from WRAMC. America is a dear place to me. If they determine America isn’t a good place to be---then they need to go half way around the world and see what life could be. I am very proud of what we are as Americans. By and large people do not know what Iraqi people think of us because we bewilder them. We turn their world completely upside down,” Frenzel mourned.

Frenzel concluded, “We pulled the Iraqi’s out from under the heels of a despot. It will take a long time for them to experience liberty. But as they see with American’s---the sky’s the limit.”

After serving in Iraq, this new Vet felt disposable. At a time when a soldier supposed to be receiving care while integrating back into civilian life, OIF Vet’s appear to be abandoned, similar to the Vet’s before them of the Vietnam War. The lack of support from the country they fought for. The abandon from the military they laid down their life for…only to have both turn on their heels. Makes the American flag that’s embossed on their shoulder seem empty. As each star and every stripe seems to evaporate when a soldier comes home. Returning as a Vet to a life that’s no longer the same. In a body that no longer looks the same. With a mind that no longer thinks the same. And a heart that no longer feels the same. Damaged by the spoils of war. Abandoned by the yellow ribbons that once comforted. And neglected by the uniform that once wrapped their soul.

Our liberty hangs on a flagpole blowing in the wind, while the invisible Veteran’s are rewarded with monuments erected in their honor, by a military that’s chosen to ignore them. These are the skeletons that will follow them long after they have left the battlefield. For it is a shameful secret draped in camouflage at the expense of courageous soldiers. Whose memory will hang at half-mast blowing in the wind. And it is them that has made this…..‘the land of the free.’

Copyright 2007 R. B. STUART, All rights reserved. No reproduction of this blog in any form.

Evidence of the VA debacle reported by the AP below:

"VA Bonus Winners Sat on Review Boards"

Associated Press: Hope Yen - May 15, 2007

WASHINGTON - Nearly two dozen officials who received hefty performance bonuses last year at the Veterans Affairs Department also sat on the boards charged with recommending the payments. Documents obtained by The Associated Press raise questions of conflicts of interest or appearances of conflicts in connection with the bonuses, some of which went to senior officials involved in crafting a budget that came up $1.3 billion short and jeopardized veterans' health care.

The documents show that 21 of 32 officials who were members of VA performance review boards received more than half a million dollars in payments themselves. Among them: nearly a dozen senior officials who devised the flawed 2005 budget. Also rewarded was the deputy undersecretary for benefits, who manages a system with severe backlogs of veterans waiting for disability benefits. Take Action: Tell your public officials how you feel about this issue.

Deputy undersecretaries who sit on the review boards, which are appointed by VA Secretary Jim Nicholson, also had input on bonus recommendations involving themselves, fellow members and spouses that made questionable performance claims and neglected agency problems.

The VA, which has defended the bonuses as necessary to retain hardworking senior employees, says board members do not participate in bonus decisions that involve themselves or fellow board members. In those cases, recommendations are made by agency heads in consultation with deputy undersecretaries, who usually serve as supervisors to their fellow board members, the agency says.

But government watchdogs were harshly critical, saying the process does little to instill public confidence in the fairness of awards. "This is a scandal in the making," said Paul C. Light, professor of public service at New York University who specializes in government reform. He said the VA bonuses pointed to possible "featherbedding" and other favoritism. Light said given the current problems in veterans care, the department would be best served if Nicholson restricted most performance bonuses for at least a year except in cases of clear improvement.

"This is not the time for largesse for the Department of Veterans Affairs," Light said. "They must not make a link between retention and employees, but employees and performance as an incentive to solve these very serious problems."

Following reports this month by the AP of the $3.8 million in bonuses, groups such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America have called on Nicholson to explain why officials involved in budget foul-ups would be rewarded. Annual bonuses to senior VA officials last year averaged more than $16,000, the highest average in government.

Rep. John Hall, D-N.Y., has introduced legislation that would freeze 2007 VA bonuses for "senior politically appointed officers" "It is simply unacceptable that veterans are waiting longer and longer for benefits they desperately need while senior staff members in charge of bad policy are rewarded so-called performance bonuses," Hall said.

The legislation, originally scheduled for a vote Tuesday, was expected to be considered along with other veterans health care bills later this month, a spokeswoman for Hall said.
However, 2006 bonus proposals obtained by the AP show that senior officials who received top payments of $33,000 were sometimes credited for achievements that were questionable, if not inaccurate. Also, no mention was made of agency-wide problems.
For example:
- Rita Reed, deputy assistant secretary for budget: "Demonstrated the ability to design and implement strategies that maximize employee potential and foster high ethical standards in meeting the organization's mission and goals." While touting her role in launching programs to "leverage the VA's buying power" as well as collecting $5.1 million in erroneous payments, the proposal does not mention Reed's lead role in crafting the VA's flawed 2005 budget. Months prior to her bonus award, GAO investigators determined the VA had used misleading accounting to justify health cuts, claiming false savings in part by double-counting savings from volume purchasing in government contracts from year to year.
- William Feeley, deputy undersecretary for health for operations and management: "Made numerous contributions to veterans and the Veterans Health Administration in his role as deputy undersecretary." It said he also led systemwide improvements that resulted in a 2.2 percent decrease in wait times for primary care. Feeley received a top bonus and is credited for yearlong achievements even though he did not take the job until February 2006, nearly halfway into the fiscal year. Previously, he was a VA regional director who played a role in the flawed 2005 budget. Regarding veterans' wait times to see doctors, a 2005 report from the VA inspector general found that VA schedulers routinely put the wrong requested appointment dates into the system, which made reported wait times appear shorter than they really were. The IG has said problems lingered in 2006 despite VA promises.
- Ronald Aument, deputy undersecretary for benefits: "His knowledge of VBA programs and operations and his breadth of experiences across VA have contributed greatly to VBA's progress in improving services to veterans." Aument helps manage a disability claims system that has backlogs of 400,000 to 600,000 veterans. The waits average 177 days, two months short of the VA's strategic goal of 125 days to process claims. Nicholson has called the delays unacceptable.

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