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Published: Wednesday, 5/14/2008

Unfit for duty

IN ANOTHER alarming indication of how dangerously stretched the U.S. military has become by simultaneously fighting two wars, Pentagon records reveal that thousands of soldiers have been sent into combat despite having been classified as medically unfit before deployment. The statistics show that more than 43,000 troops found medically "nondeployable" by doctors nonetheless were deployed to either Iraq or Afghanistan.

The practice is indefensible, especially by an administration that frequently proclaims its allegiance to all things military. The perils of using unfit personnel to perform critical military tasks should be obvious to anyone.

Medical personnel conduct health assessments at each military installation to determine the number of nondeployable troops before deployment. The ultimate decision on who goes and who stays rests with unit commanders, who may consult with physicians about whether a soldier can receive needed treatment in theater.

The Pentagon says the screening process is new to this war. Its records do not list what or how serious a soldier's health problem is but track how many given the nondeployable distinction were redeployed. In 2003, according to government figures obtained by USA Today, 10,854 medically unfit troops were sent to Iraq and Afghanistan.

That number went down to 5,397 in 2005 and back up to 9,140 in 2007. The rotation of soldiers with serious health issues that may or may not have been treated is a consequence of the consistent churning of troops, said Bobby Muller, president of Veterans For America. "They are repeatedly exposed to high-intensity combat with insufficient time at home to rest and heal before deploying."

At Fort Carson in Colorado, an investigation is under way into procedures used in the case of a brigade deployed to Iraq last year where at least 36 soldiers found medically unfit were sent into battle. Another investigation, by the Government Accountability Office, said the system of deploying soldiers to Iraq and Afghanistan with medical problems is also evident at Fort Drum in New York and Fort Stewart and Fort Benning in Georgia.

But filling in the ranks of frontline troops with soldiers who should never have been deployed for medical reasons is dangerous to the individuals involved and to those who might have to depend on them on the battlefield.

It only shows how broken the military has become fighting under an oblivious commander in chief.

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