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Monday, September 03, 2007

Army Halts Fort Benning Recruit Stress Study

From the Atlanta Journal Constitution:

As a combat surgeon in Afghanistan, Col. Richard Gonzalez earned a Bronze Star and Army accolades for his self-sacrifice. Now Gonzalez is fighting to save his military career, accused of discrediting his uniform as leader of a scientific study at Fort Benning.

The Army has halted the study, which was examining the debilitating impact of stress on recruits, and ordered results kept secret. Gonzalez was demoted and is under investigation for arranging a researcher's no-bid contract and conducting an unapproved study. The Army is also looking into possible violations of consent and medical privacy procedures.

But Army documents show the research board that first approved the study — and is now investigating Gonzalez's team — shares blame for miscommunications and mistakes. The board did not explain study requirements or properly supervise Gonzalez, a first-time researcher, an Army audit found. Nor did it forward his proposal for a required command-level review. The board even lost track of what study plan it had approved.

Shutting down the study may have violated soldiers' trust in more fundamental ways. Each of the 330 recruits volunteered on the promise that the project might save others from physical and mental injuries. They spent hours sharing intimate details about the most stressful events of their lives.

Click on 'Article Link' below tags for more...

In the interest of education, article quoted from extensively.


Continuing:

In the wake of the investigations, without Gonzalez's knowledge, the Army removed the recruits' private files so it could turn his locked study office into an employee break room. While Gonzalez later found paper files in a "disheveled" state, the Army wouldn't tell him where the study's computer was, records show.

The incident has raised serious questions among researchers about whether intensely private details — such as recruits' accounts of childhood abuse and molestation — have been disclosed. ...

Many thought the study held great promise when Gonzalez pitched it.
The idea drew support from top scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and won $250,000 in an Army research competition. "Dr. Gonzalez' study is one of the best organized [conceptually and operationally] that I have been privileged to collaborate on," the CDC's Dr. William Reeves wrote this summer to Gonzalez's commanders.

In Afghanistan, Gonzalez had seen constant fatigue among soldiers. He saw the same fatigue among recruits when he returned to Fort Benning, he said last fall in an Atlanta Journal-Constitution interview. "I wanted to look at soldiers from the beginning, wondering about stress-related problems," he said. Gonzalez wondered whether he could predict which soldiers would break down from injuries, fatigue or post-traumatic stress disorder.

Up to 15 percent of recruits don't complete basic training, a problem as the Army struggles with enlistment goals. And veterans are grappling with high rates of PTSD.

A look at some of the mistakes:

Gonzalez's commander named [Roger Bannon, a retired Army major and Gonzalez's study manager until he was fired in July] as his study manager, even though Bannon also had no research experience. Reeves and his CDC team joined the project after the researchers came across his work on the role stress plays in chronic fatigue and Gulf War syndrome. CDC declined interview requests. ...

[T]he second phase of the study involving 1,200 recruits seemed to be on track for a June 20 launch, when the commander of Fort Benning's hospital abruptly halted the project May 30. Col. Margaret Rivera ordered Gonzalez and Bannon to report on their preliminary findings and provide a financial audit and a copy of Bannon's contract. Bannon retired May 1 from the Army but continued work under a $72,000 contract.

With no experience with contracting, Bannon said he and Gonzalez relied heavily on Fort Benning procurement officials who told them it would be OK to give a sole-source contract to a Virginia firm that then hired Bannon. "If they told me I wasn't allowed to do this, then I never would have done that," said Bannon, an occupational therapist. But Rivera's staff concluded the researchers began the study without proper approval and had made misleading statements to get Bannon's contract.

The Army canceled the contract and is considering legal action against Bannon. Gonzalez, once the hospital's chief of warrior care and chief of orthopedics, was demoted to staff doctor. Fort Benning's commander, Maj. Gen. Walter Wojdakowski, on July 26 reprimanded Gonzalez, saying his actions "demonstrate a complete lack of judgment and bring discredit upon you, your unit, and the United States Army."

Gonzalez, who was touted by Army publicists in 2004 for volunteering for an extra year in Afghanistan, is close to qualifying for military retirement benefits. He sold his private surgery practice and converted from a National Guard officer to active duty Army while in Afghanistan. Bannon said he fears the Army is laying the groundwork to discharge Gonzalez and leave him with nothing.

Christopher Yukins, a government contract law expert at George Washington University, said departing government employees are supposed to be briefed on rules for future employment. And he said prudent contractors will often ask an incoming employee for an ethics letter from the government saying a contract job is OK.

Neither happened, Bannon said. ...While Bannon and Gonzalez admit mistakes, an audit by the Army's Clinical Investigation Regulatory Office in July also blamed the IRB for not monitoring the study properly. The audit also called for the Fort Benning data to be analyzed and put to use if it will help soldiers. But the IRB continues to tell the researchers they may not publish the data.

It's put CDC's scientists in a bind: They have a manuscript they want to send to a journal and still want to continue the research.

Read the piece for full details.

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