Wounded Soldiers Languished 540 Days in Fort Riley Transition System

Members of the 1st Infantry Division fall in for a re-deployment ceremony upon return from Iraq to Fort Riley in 2009.

Members of the 1st Infantry Division fall in for a re-deployment ceremony upon return from Iraq to Fort Riley in 2009. Orlin Wagner/AP file photo

Lack of staff and months-long searches for medical records contributed to the problem.

Soldiers in the Warrior Transition Battalion at Fort Riley, Kan., spent an average of a year and half -- 540 days -- working their way through a system that is supposed to determine their fitness for duty within a year, the Defense Department Inspector General reported yesterday.

The Army set up 35 transition units in 2007 to manage the care and evaluation of combat wounded, disabled or sick soldiers. Between June 1, 2007, and Dec. 31, 2012, 1,735 soldiers transitioned through the Fort Riley unit.

The service is required to process soldiers through the joint Defense-Veterans Affairs Integrated Disability Evaluation system, but there weren’t enough behavioral health specialists on staff at the installation or in the local community to meet the Army’s needs.

Under the system, soldiers must undergo medical evaluations that include mental and physical exams within 100 days -- a standard officials at Fort Riley could not meet, in part because there weren’t enough staff but also because it sometimes took months to track down medical records and other administrative documents, the IG said.

The IG said medical staff were overwhelmed, with an average caseload of 95 soldiers when the recommended caseload was 25.

Broken Warriors is an ongoing series on mental health issues in the military.

A crucial component of the medical evaluation is the narrative summary, which documents a soldier’s history of illness based on examinations, laboratory tests, reports of consultations, response to therapy and subjective medical staff conclusions with justifying rationale. Those summaries are valid only for six months.

While physicians generally completed physical exams in a timely fashion, delays frequently occurred in completing the psychiatric portion, which took, on average, three to four months and as long as eight months. This meant an individual solider faced with such a delay would have to start the process over again.

The IG conducted its inspection in May 2011; in a response last month, the Army Surgeon General said Fort Riley has reduced the staff workload and is now meeting the 100 day evaluation deadline, due in part to a sharp reduction in the number of soldiers in the battalion.