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Army Doctor: Denial a 'Misunderstanding'

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

More now on a story about disability benefits for injured soldiers at an Army base in upstate New York. Yesterday we reported on a document that described a meeting in which Army officials directed Veterans Affairs to stop helping wounded soldiers at Ft. Drum with their Army medical paperwork.

The Army surgeon general has a different account of that meeting. After the story aired, Army Surgeon General Eric Schoomaker sat down with NPR's Ari Shapiro to discuss the controversy.

ARI SHAPIRO: When NPR first reported a week ago that Army officials told the VA to stop helping injured soldiers at Ft. Drum, Surgeon General Eric Schoomaker was skeptical.

Major General Eric SCHOOMAKER: (Army Surgeon General): We have always encouraged competent counseling for our soldiers. We have never, we have no policy that denies them access to any counselor. So it just didn't make sense to me.

SHAPIRO: So Schoomaker talked to the team that visited at Fort Drum last March.

Maj. Gen. SCHOOMAKER: their recollection and their recreation of that visit up to Fort Drum was very, very positive. They were laudatory of what the veterans benefits advisors were doing for our soldiers up there. They felt in many cases it was almost a best practice.

SHAPIRO: Since Schoomaker reached the conclusion that NPR's reporting was wrong.

Maj. Gen. SCHOOMAKER: I felt pretty confident in saying to both army leadership as well as members of Congress that this wasn't how it came down.

SHAPIRO: Yesterday Schoomaker apologized to those people.

Maj. Gen. SCHOOMAKER: Had I had the memorandum that has later surfaced, I quickly would have recognized there was a miscommunication here.

SHAPIRO: The four page memo is very detailed. It was written by a VA worker the day after the Army team's meeting at Fort Drum last March. According to the document, a member of the Surgeon General's team told the VA to stop reviewing soldier's disability paperwork. She said there was a conflict of interest that paperwork can determine disability benefits and healthcare. Someone from VA responded that the Army Inspector General had approved of what the VA was doing, but according to the memo, the VA agreed to stop reviewing soldier's paperwork anyway if that's what the army wanted.

I told General Schoomaker, looking at the memorandum, which I have here - and I don't know if you've seen it first hand - but it's pretty explicit. And reading it, it's hard to see how there can be this miscommunication.

Maj. Gen. SCHOOMAKER: Ari, all I can say is I wish I had seen this; I wish the team had seen this; I wish this had been shared with the team on the same day that it was written, so that we would have seen clearly what their perception of things… Hey, we've always - we've all seen experiences where different observers of the same event report it in different ways, and I think this might be one of those examples.

SHAPIRO: The VA document brought further inquires from lawmakers yesterday. New York Senator Hillary Clinton sent a second letter to the Army Secretary, asking for an investigation. She said if the army is discouraging the VA from counseling soldiers on their disability ratings, that is completely unacceptable. Schoomaker said yesterday, in essence, he agrees.

Maj. Gen. SCHOOMAKER: We have no policy, we have absolutely no initiative to keep the best advice from coming to our soldiers and their families, and if this is - if this exchange that took place in March, and if my earlier, obviously, not as well informed refutation of that account in any way has broken down support, then I'm very sorry. I want to get the best advice for our soldiers and their families we can possibly get.

SHAPIRO: Schoomaker says disabled soldiers who believe they've received inferior support because of this incident should speak out.

Maj. Gen. SCHOOMAKER: If anyone out there feels that they didn't get the best advice, they need to come forward and let us know about that.

SHAPIRO: And asked if he has any message for the VA workers at Fort Drum, Schoomaker says, it's the message his staff tried to convey a year ago. Thank you for helping our soldiers. You're doing a terrific job. We think your practices and behaviors are among the best we've seen.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And you can read Ari Shapiro's interview with Army Surgeon General Eric Schoomaker at npr.org.

(Soundbite of music) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ari Shapiro
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.