Family of dying GI battles bureaucracy
Sun, Nov. 23, 2003
By Lisa Falkenberg The Associated Press
KARNACK - By the time he shipped out for the war in Iraq in January, Special Forces Sgt. James Alford was a wreck of a soldier.
Sgt. James Alford
For five months, he had been doing odd things. He disappeared from Fort Campbell, Ky., for several days. He lost equipment and lied to superiors. In December, he was demoted from staff sergeant to sergeant.
In the Kuwaiti desert, he came apart. The hotshot Green Beret, who a year earlier ran circles around his team members and earned a Bronze Star in Afghanistan, was ordered to carry a notepad to remember orders. By March, he was being cited for dereliction of duty, larceny and lying to superiors. He couldn't even keep up with his gas mask.
Finally, in April, his commanders had had enough. They ordered him to return to Fort Campbell to be court-martialed and kicked out of the Special Forces.
"Your conduct is inconsistent with the integrity and professionalism required by a Special Forces soldier," Lt. Col. Christopher Conner of the 2nd Battalion, 5th Special Forces Group Headquarters in Kuwait wrote April 10.
Confused and disgraced, the soldier moved back into his off-base home, where he ate canned meat and anchovies, unaware of the day, the month or the year.
Sensing something was wrong, a neighbor called Alford's parents. They drove 600 miles from East Texas to find a son who had lost 30 pounds and could no longer drink from a glass, use a telephone, button his shirt or say "Amber," the name of his soldier wife, who was still stationed in the Middle East.
They rushed him to an emergency room. A month and several hospitals later, Alford's family learned that he was dying of a disease eating away his brain. He had Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, an extremely rare and fatal degenerative brain disorder akin to mad cow disease that causes rapid, progressive dementia.
Now, as the 25-year-old soldier wastes away in his boyhood home, his parents and his wife are struggling to understand how the military could have misdiagnosed Alford's erratic, forgetful behavior as nothing more than the symptoms of a sloppy, incompetent soldier.
"He had to hold his hands to keep them from shaking, but they saw nothing wrong with my child," his mother, Gail Alford, a nine-year Army veteran, said recently from her home in Karnack, a rural community near Marshall.
Alford's parents say Special Forces staff members told them that a doctor in Kuwait had found nothing wrong with him and that a psychiatrist there had said Alford was "faking it."
Army officials have acknowledged that the 5th Special Forces Group erred and, more than eight months after Alford's demotion, they reinstated his staff sergeant rank.
But the dying soldier's family members want more. They want a public apology for the ridicule and disgrace that they say filled Alford's final days of service.
"They called him stupid, told him he was lazy, he was a liar, that he wasn't any good, that he was a faker," his mother said, recalling what little her son could tell her about his time in Kuwait. "I want them shamed the way they shamed my son."
And they want his pay restored and his medical benefits maintained. The Army declared Alford medically incompetent, placed him on retirement status and froze his pay this month until his parents can prove in court that they are his legal guardians. His mother said she was given power of attorney long ago.
Special Forces blamed
Alford's father, retired Army Command Sgt. Maj. John Alford, who served 34 years, said that Army doctors have been caring and professional and that commanders stationed his son's wife, Spc. Amber Alford, in Texas near her husband.
He mainly faults the Special Forces.
"I think they did everything they could to break him, mentally and physically," he said.
In a July 30 letter responding to an inquiry by U.S. Rep. Max Sandlin, D-Marshall, Army Lt. Col. Johan Haraldsen wrote that the Special Forces group to which Alford belonged expressed "its deepest concerns" to the soldier and his family.
"All actions taken ... involving Sergeant Alford were appropriate based on the best information available at that time," Haraldsen wrote.
Alford himself may have tried to conceal his symptoms, said Dr. Steve Williams, a clinical fellow in the division of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn.
"He was capable of masking the symptoms because he was resourceful and he was a smart guy," said Williams, who diagnosed Alford with Creutzfeldt-Jakob. "I'd ask him what floor he was on, and I could catch him looking outside and counting the number of windows."
Col. David Dooley, an infectious-disease doctor at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, said Special Forces staff members shouldn't take the blame for missing Alford's illness. A delayed diagnosis is "typical and classic"; the average lag time for the disease is five to seven months, he said.
"If I'm going to hold anything against them, they might have come around a little faster when a medical problem was recognized," Dooley said. "The Special Forces group was fairly inert to the face of data that we medics were showing them."
Doctors also note that Alford didn't have the outbursts of anger and depression usually associated with the variant form and that the fast progression of his illness is more consistent with the classic form.
Alford was the youngest man in the 5th Special Forces Group, and his wife says some of his team members resented his promotion. At least one said Alford seemed a bit immature and made a few bad decisions when he first joined, but military records show that he earned decorations.
He was awarded the Bronze Star in May 2002 for "gallant conduct" in leading reconnaissance patrols in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar and helping capture Iranian terrorism suspects.
Staff Sgt. Miguel Fabbiani, a friend of Alford's and a member of the same team based at Fort Campbell, said Alford's symptoms escalated during wartime when he was working with a new group that didn't know him as well.
Alford's parents said they didn't see him enough to detect a problem. His wife was stationed near him for a while in Kuwait, but she chalked up his odd behavior to stress.
Alford's father said the actions of his son's superiors broke the spirit of a young man who had wanted to become a soldier since he was 4.
He now lies in pastel sheets next to a wall painting of John Wayne. Wearing a Houston Texans T-shirt that hangs like a hospital gown, he stares absently into a television that glows 24 hours, his hands gripping stuffed animals to keep them from clenching shut.
"He knows his name, sometimes," says his wife, a tiny woman in sneakers who helps tend to her husband as she ponders a life alone. "Sometimes I'll go up to him, wink at him and make kissy faces, and he laughs."
Her eyes well up as she remembers the handsome, arrogant boy she met as a teen-ager at a barrel-racing contest in Texas.
As his brain deteriorates, his organs will fail.
"He will go blind, he will go deaf, he will lose everything," his father said.
He stopped walking more than a month ago, mumbles when he tries to speak, is fed intravenously and takes medicine for insomnia, pain and tremors. Doctors have told the family that he probably won't live to see Christmas.
I remember hearing about this guy. Believe he was discussed on this board. That was before the diagnosis. There is more to the story if you want to use the link. CMB69
Doctors kill about 100,000 people a year thru "surgical misadventure" and missed treatment. I am sure the military docs get more than their share. 10 years ago, Army doctors misdiagnosed and helped to kill my 4y/o son. By missing the early signs of a cancer they made it less likely that treatment would have saved him. They said he had the flu and got really nasty when I disagreed. I finnally went to a civilian hospital where it took all of 5 minutes to see what was wrong. Their response to their practices? They destroyed his medical records and denied ever treating him. Lucky I made copies before calling my congressman. It made for an interesting investigation, they lie and deny and I provide records, repeat as needed. They eventually made most of the staff come in one Saturday and search every office for where ever and whomever was helping me. People got "relocated" but nothing was ever done to prevent them from doing it again. This guys unit sucked, but the docs lack of concern and treatment says it all to me. Most Army doctors can find bullet holes or locate the stump of a blown off limb. But something requiring actual skill beyond an ambulance driver? No way.
I'm at a loss for words, knowing what I know. [:(]