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What Happened to Private Smither and Will the Army be Held Accountable?

If you’ve ever served in the military, you are undoubtedly familiar with Ibuprofen and light duty. It seemed to be the remedy for anything that happened to you. This was so common as to be seen as a joke amongst veterans. However, obviously, that is an inappropriate treatment for many conditions. In one case, at least, it was egregiously inappropriate and that treatment, plus other failures in one soldier's command, led to his death after a head injury.

Private Smither, a construction equipment repairer with the 82nd Airborne, hit his head on the radiator of a vehicle he was working on. Initially, according to witnesses, he was fine. However, within a day the signs were clear that something was not right. He began to experience severe pain soon after he went on a sick call. Guess what they prescribed? Ibuprofen and acetaminophen and 24 hours of bed rest. On the way back to his barracks, he was shivering and pale. The next day he was vomiting and he returned to sick call. He was given a CT scan and prescribed more pain meds and more bedrest.

This was the point where the failures of his unit began. It was the beginning of a “96” (as we called it in the Marine Corps) – 96 hours of “liberty,” or, as civilians would call it, a four-day weekend. After he was dropped off at the barracks, nobody checked up on him until after he failed to show up at formation on the following Tuesday, five days after he was dropped off in his room.

Clearly, the Army failed him. At multiple points. If Womack Army Hospital had admitted him, he might be alive today. If his Team Leader had checked up on him every day, he might be alive today.

That these failures happened is shocking. But, the most shocking part of all is that the Army might not be held accountable for what is clearly their fault.

Something called the Feres doctrine prevents active-duty members of the armed forces from suing their service branch for negligence. Recently (in 2019), the Stayskal Act slightly modified this prohibition. Now, medical malpractice claims can be brought against the service branches, though these claims are not “suits.” No judge or jury is involved. The claim is filed with the branch, and that branch decides whether that claim is granted or not.

How is that going? From the article about Private Smither: “…[B]etween the Air Force, Army, and Navy, of the roughly 350 claims that have been filed, only two settlement offers had been accepted, one for $10,000 and one for $20,000.”

Sounds like it's not going very well.


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