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Soldier seeks answers in medical separation

by Deborah Funk
Air Force Times

The walls are stripped bare, the furniture, pictures and awards are packed in storage, and the wheelbarrow and baskets overflowing with flowers that brightened the front yard have been given to neighbors.

All that’s left for Army Staff Sgt. Eddie Norman to do is go to the finance office, turn in his military ID card and map the route from Fort Meade, Md., to San Antonio. There, he’ll go to the Department of Veterans Affairs for health care and rehabilitation. Where his wife and three children will receive care in Texas is not yet known.

After nearly 15 years of service, Norman is being medically separated, not retired, from the Army for debilitating muscle and joint pain, stiffness and weakness that started after his anthrax vaccinations.

“They’re supposed to take care of me. They are accountable for what’s happened to me,” said Norman, 38. “They’re not being accountable. They’re not holding good leadership.”

Norman keeps folders labeled “VA,” “SSI” and others in a brown casual briefcase. His stack of medical records includes his medical evaluation board results and 10 diagnoses. Three of those conditions — musculoskeletal pain, sleep apnea and clinical depression — prevent him from meeting military medical-retention standards, according to the medical documents.

But the Physical Evaluation Board, part of the Army’s personnel system, said only the musculoskeletal pain made him unfit for service and rated him 20 percent disabled for that condition. Norman needed a 30 percent disability rating to be medically retired, which would preserve his medical care and on-post shopping benefits.

“I used to be perfectly healthy,” Norman said, sitting on a box in his living room, his cane lying next to him. “The illnesses I have now occurred while I was on active duty.”

But just because a doctor determines a service member doesn’t meet medical-retention standards does not mean the condition makes the member unfit for service. And the Physical Evaluation Board rates only those conditions deemed to make someone unfit.
The board is a “performance-based system ... the mere presence of a medical condition that falls below medical-retention standards does not mean that condition is unfitting,” said Army Col. Frederick Schumacher, executive officer of the U.S. Army Physical Disability Agency.

“What the board does is take a look at the diagnoses, rates those that are listed as falling below retention standards and makes an independent determination if that condition itself leads to the physical unfitness of the soldier. If the answer to that is yes, it is rated. If the answer to that question is no, the condition is not rated. This is established by law. The services only rate the unfitting conditions.”
Norman, a 1991 Persian Gulf War veteran, had some memory problems and muscle and joint pain in the mid-1990s, but recovered and was functional, scoring well on physical tests and completing classes.

His muscle and joint pain flared again and got stronger after his anthrax vaccinations. He lost some muscle control in his hands and legs, he said, and has suffered depression over his physical condition. Documents from military medical exams link the problem to the time of his anthrax shots, but cannot conclude the shots caused the problem. Vaccine health-care experts say they have seen similar cases following various vaccinations.

“Staff Sgt. Norman was a high-functioning, decorated service member prior to beginning anthrax vaccine,” stated a document from the Walter Reed Regional Vaccine Healthcare Center in Washington.

“Staff Sgt. Norman’s life has been significantly altered due to his current disability and hope for recovery is uncertain. The lack of clinical findings is discouraging and leaves his providers baffled and powerless as to an effective treatment plan.”

The document said the Vaccine Healthcare Center has treated “many proficient service members with debilitating conditions that cannot be diagnosed or medically substantiated, conditions that have developed in close temporal association to having received the anthrax as well as other vaccines.”

Norman got all six anthrax shots under the mandatory program. He received his first while preparing for deployment to South Korea. Afterward, his hips hurt and he couldn’t turn his neck. His health grew worse after each shot, he said, and he suffers from muscle cramps, numbness in his legs, ringing in his ears, poor sleep, diabetes and other problems.

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