On the mend, but on hold.
ALBANY - Oregon National Guard Staff Sgt. Sean Davis is the kind of guy you want on your side in a firefight: calm, committed, former Army infantryman, knows his enemy, willing to get the job done.
If he hadn't gotten blown up in a June attack that smashed his wrist, broke his leg and spattered shrapnel in his back, he'd be with his unit - Bravo Company of the 2nd Battalion 162nd Infantry, recently battling it out with insurgents in Najaf.
But Davis is home now, recuperating from his injuries and in the military limbo known as medical hold.
The up side of medical hold is that Guard soldiers remain on active duty status while they heal from injuries. That gives them access to the full range of medical care available to regular Army soldiers.
The down side: Some recuperating Guard members have gotten stuck on Army bases far from home and family.
That policy trapped 31-year-old Davis for almost a month at Fort Hood, Texas, far away from his wife and two kids in Albany. It took intervention from U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio to get him and another Oregon National Guard member back home.
Here's the problem:
When regular Army soldiers get injured, they're sent back to their home base to recuperate unless they need specialized care, such as that provided to amputees at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. That poses few problems for Army soldiers, whose families often live on or near the base, say Guard spokesmen.
But injured National Guard soldiers often go to the base where they trained before going to war, such as Fort Lewis in Washington state and Fort Hood in Texas - far from family members. Several have languished there despite only sporadic medical care.
After complaints about the system, the Army has come up with a solution that gives some National Guard members the option of being treated by civilian doctors closer to home. But despite the policy change, problems remain.
Stuck in Fort Lewis
Last week, the Oregon National Guard's acting adjutant general, Brig. Gen. Raymond Byrne, met with about a dozen Guard members still being treated at Fort Lewis' Madigan Army Medical Center to hear more about the problems they face.
"There's a lot of frustration," said Maj. Arnold Strong, a spokesman for the Oregon National Guard. The biggest problem seems to be with the soldiers stuck in Fort Lewis who aren't hospitalized, scheduled for only a couple of appointments a month, but who would rather be home.
"The argument is, `Hey, I'm up here by myself and not feeling like I can get on with my life,' ' he said.
Currently, 55 Oregon Guard members are on medical hold. Of them, 29 received injuries in Iraq, the rest were hurt in the United States in incidents that include on-the-job injuries and car accidents.
There are 26 soldiers receiving some kind of care through Fort Lewis. Other Oregon Guard members are scattered around the country at Walter Reed, Fort Bragg, Fort Hood and Fort Carson. A couple are still being treated in Germany, according to Oregon National Guard records.
Davis' odyssey began on June 13, when his Humvee blew up, the target of an improvised explosive device in Taji north of Baghdad.
The blast threw the Humvee 6 feet in the air, killing gunner Eric McKinley and injuring driver Matthew Zedwick and Davis. Zedwick's injuries were minor and he returned to his unit, but Davis was rushed to a Baghdad hospital with arm and leg fractures, burns and shrapnel in his back.
The broken leg wasn't bad, but bone jutted through the skin in a compound fracture of Davis' right wrist. He was stabilized and sent to Germany before being transferred back to the United States.
Davis figured he was headed for Fort Lewis, just like one of the other injured men from his unit, Cpl. Shane Ward, who was shot in the fighting that followed the explosion. But Ward got sent to Fort Lewis and Davis ended up in Texas, where his unit was stationed before being deployed.
After a week of treatment there, he was sent home to convalesce in Albany with his family, but a month later he was ordered back to Fort Hood to sign papers ending his convalescent care.
Army officials told him they couldn't fax him the paperwork. "They said it would just take three or four days," he said.
He had to pay for his flight back to the base, but the day after he arrived, Fort Hood officials froze all transfers, and Davis found himself stuck in Texas without recourse.
His barracks was next to a shooting range where mortars went off every night. Having just returned from a combat zone, where his camp underwent nightly mortar fire, Davis was a little jumpy. He didn't have a uniform - all his gear had been left behind in Iraq - and he was stuck wearing Army sweats known as PTs - a kind of attire that normally excludes a soldier from eating at the mess hall or seeing doctors. Davis had to keep explaining himself to fellow soldiers who confronted him.
A "Catch 22" situation
Davis, who enlisted in the Guard on Sept. 12, 2001, isn't a complainer. "I don't want people to have a negative view of the Army," he said. But he does smile when he recalls how he kept himself busy during those weeks - reading the quintessential World War II novel of Army life paradoxes, "Catch 22" by Joseph Heller.
His situation improved when his wife, Jennifer, finally called DeFazio's office for help.
DeFazio's staff has intervened on behalf of two National Guard soldiers on medical hold by contacting the Army's Sacramento-based Community Health Care Initiative, specifically created to deal with such medical issues, said DeFazio spokeswoman Penny Dodge.
"It hadn't been set up yet for Oregon and Washington," when Davis first arrived at Fort Hood, she said. "Since it's been set up we haven't heard from anybody else."
But the kinks in the system remain, Strong said.
The Army won't release soldiers for treatment in their home towns if they can't get equivalent care there, he said. Madigan Hospital at Fort Lewis is considered the West Coast equivalent of the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, he said. A soldier in Corvallis is unlikely to find the same specialized treatment that he'd get at Madigan, Strong said. And unless soldiers are willing to sign a treatment waiver, they're bound to receive the care that the Army stipulates.
New Guard procedures
To help soldiers who can't get home, the Oregon National Guard has begun two new efforts, Strong said. From now on, unit representatives will routinely check on Guard members who are on medical hold, Strong said.
"If you came from Bravo Company's 52nd Engineers, then a Bravo representative ought to be checking on you routinely," he said.
And Guard family support coordinators in other states will also check in with injured Oregon Guard members and contact their families here to keep them in the loop, Strong said.
Davis is now seeing a Portland physical therapist through the Veterans Administration hospital for help and has about 10 percent of the use of his right hand. He may require further surgery to remove a plate inserted to hold his wrist bones together.
As he heals, he spends his days working at the Armory in Corvallis. Although happy to be home with his wife and kids, he feels torn whenever he goes online and finds pictures of Bravo Company in the thick of the fight. Several were recently posted on Yahoo's news site.
"I see these pictures," he said, "and I just want to be there. I don't want to be shot at, but I do want to be with these guys."
Oregon National Guard Family Program: Contact Diane Gooding at Diane.Gooding@or.ngb.army.mil or call (503) 584-3543, toll free (800) 452-7500
Staff Sgt. Sean Davis is one of 55 Oregon National Guard members who are on medical hold. He is recovering from a June attack on his Humvee in Iraq that shattered his wrist, broke his leg and sent shrapnel into his back. Kevin Clark / The Register-Guard Davis says he feels torn whenever he goes online and finds pictures of Bravo Company. "I just want to be there," he says.