The increasing need for warfighters for the Global War on Terrorism has meant longer and multiple deployments for soldiers. Medical readiness is essential to their performing needed duties, and an impairment that limits a soldier’s capacities represents risk to the soldier, the unit, and the mission. Asked to review the Army’s compliance with its guidance, GAO examined the extent to which the Army is (1) adhering to its medical and deployment requirements regarding decisions to send soldiers with medical conditions to Iraq and Afghanistan, and (2) deploying soldiers with medical conditions requiring duty limitations, and assigning them to duties suitable for their limitations. GAO reviewed Army guidance, and medical records for those preparing to deploy between April 2006 and March 2007; interviewed Army officials and commanders at Forts Benning, Stewart, and Drum, selected for their high deployment rates; and surveyed deployed soldiers with medical limitations.
Army guidance allows commanders to deploy soldiers with medical conditions requiring duty limitations, subject to certain requirements, but the Army lacks enforcement mechanisms to ensure that all requirements are met, and medical record keeping problems obstruct the Army’s visibility over these soldiers’ conditions. A soldier diagnosed with an impairment must be given a physical profile form designating numerically the severity of the condition and, if designated 3 or higher (more severe), must be evaluated by a medical board. Commanders must then determine proper duty assignments based on soldiers’ profile and commanders’ staffing needs. From a random projectable sample, GAO estimates that 3 percent of soldiers from Forts Benning, Stewart, and Drum who had designations of 3 did not receive required board evaluations prior to being deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan for the period studied. In some cases, soldiers were not evaluated because commanders lacked timely access to profiles; in other cases, commanders did not take timely actions. The Army also had problems with retention and completeness of profiles; although guidance requires that approved profiles be retained in soldiers’ medical records, 213 profiles were missing from the sample of 685 records reviewed. The Army was not consistent in assigning numerical designations reflecting soldiers’ abilities to perform functional activities. GAO estimates from a random projectable sample that 7 percent of soldiers from these three installations had profiles indicating their inability to perform certain functional activities, yet carrying numerical designators below 3. While medical providers can “upgrade” numerical designations discretionarily based on knowledge of soldiers’ conditions, the upgrades can mask limitations and cause commanders to deploy soldiers without needed board evaluations. While GAO found no evidence of widespread revision in profile designations, some soldiers interviewed or surveyed disagreed with their designations yet were reluctant to express concerns for fear of prejudicial treatment. The Army has instituted a program to provide ombudsmen to whom soldiers can bring medical concerns, but it is targeted at returning soldiers and is not well publicized as a resource for all soldiers with medical conditions. Without timely board evaluations and retention of profile information for deploying soldiers with medical conditions, the Army lacks full visibility and commanders must make medical readiness, deployment, and duty assignment decisions without being fully informed of soldiers’ medical limitations. GAO estimates that about 10 percent of soldiers with medical conditions that could require duty limitations were deployed from the three installations, but survey response was too limited to enable GAO to project the extent to which they were assigned to suitable duties. Along with interviews, however, responses suggest that both soldiers and commanders believe soldiers are generally assigned to duties that accommodate their medical conditions. Occasional exceptions have occurred when a profile did not reflect all necessary medical information or a soldier’s special skill was difficult to replace. Officials said soldiers sometimes understate their conditions to be deployed with their units, or overstate them to avoid deployment.