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Army bureaucracy keeps injured soldiers in uniform even after enlistment expires

Hired at Sunstar, decorated Army Spc. Andrew Harriman recovered from a leg injury only to wait years for a discharge.

DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times

Hired at Sunstar, decorated Army Spc. Andrew Harriman recovered from a leg injury only to wait years for a discharge.

LARGO — It's an all-volunteer Army. But there were days when Andrew Harriman felt like a draftee.

The Largo man signed up for a three-year Army hitch. Harriman, 26, gets out next month — three years, five months and 13 days after his enlistment expired.

Not that he's counting.

Harriman, whose leg was shot in Iraq, found his Army stint prolonged by a program created to ensure soldiers get the best medical care for their wounds. But critics say the program can sometimes delay discharge long after any medical necessity to do so.

An Army spokesman said it was in Harriman's best interest to stay in the Army to get medical care, though the Army acknowledges he spent a year longer on "medical hold" than the average.

"It was just stupid," Harriman said in an interview at his parents' Largo home earlier this week. "If it was in the soldier's best interest, I don't know what soldier they were talking about. It wasn't me."

Harriman is officially in the Army until Nov. 24. But he's back home, using accumulated leave time until his discharge. He has been hired as an emergency medical technician by Sunstar Paramedics in Pinellas County.

The St. Petersburg Times wrote about Harriman in late 2007. Even then, a frustrated Harriman complained, "I'm stuck in kind of a paperwork hell."

Harriman had already been caught up in the Army's stop-loss policy. That allows the extension of enlistment if a scheduled discharge is within 90 days of the deployment of a soldier's unit.

So instead of being discharged as scheduled on June 12, 2006, he was sent to Iraq.

He was in Iraq when four bullets accidentally fired by another U.S. soldier shattered his lower left leg on March 26, 2007.

Harriman, based at Fort Bragg, N.C., endured nine operations, the last of which was in December 2007.

He quickly recovered without even a limp.

Harriman repeatedly asked the Army to discharge him. He said he was always promised it was coming soon. Meanwhile, the Army put him up in a spartan hotel at Bragg — for two years.

Harriman did what he could to combat boredom. He volunteered to work in a base hospital as an emergency room medic. He started skydiving for recreation. He visited home when he could.

For a few months, Harriman said, he got depressed and didn't show up at the emergency room. Nobody noticed, assuming he had finally been discharged.

At one point, Harriman considered going AWOL, telling his commanding officer his plans. At worst, Harriman figured, they'd throw him out of the Army.

A captain warned he could be jailed. Harriman said he answered: "Sir, I'm already in jail. The only difference is, I don't have a parole date."

He decided to stay.

Harriman filled out endless paperwork. He researched Army rules looking for a loophole to freedom. He sought the counsel of officers who were sympathetic but just shrugged their shoulders as if to say, "You know the Army."

And it didn't matter that Harriman was a highly decorated soldier with a Purple Heart from an injury caused by a roadside bomb, a Silver Star and a Bronze Star with valor.

The Army says Harriman's case was handled properly, noting it would be unconscionable to abandon a wounded soldier before he is made whole.

"It's doesn't set a record by any means," Robert Moore, a spokesman for the Army's Medical Transition Command, said of Harriman's delayed discharge. "It can take much longer than that. It's better to take the time to get a soldier's recovery right than to get it done quickly."

About 9,000 soldiers are in Army medical hold, some with wounds far more serious than Harriman's. Even critics acknowledge that for many, the program offers faster care and more attention than they might receive outside the Army.

But complaints about dysfunction have plagued it.

"It's just a system that wasn't meant for this many people," said Brian McGough, an Army veteran who is legislative director for Votevets.org, a veterans advocacy group. "It's frustrating."

McGough should know.

He suffered a brain injury in Iraq when a roadside bomb exploded. McGough found himself in a medical hold that extended his discharge by two years. He got out in 2005.

The program needs to be streamlined, McGough said, and paperwork reduced.

Harriman, who said he got excellent medical care in the Army, is still puzzled by the service's arcane rules.

He missed out, for example, on promotion during the last three years. But now the Army has remedied that — kind of. Harriman is being promoted from specialist to sergeant — the day before his discharge.

William R. Levesque can be reached at levesque@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3436.

Army bureaucracy keeps injured soldiers in uniform even after enlistment expires 10/24/09 [Last modified: Saturday, October 24, 2009 8:13pm]
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