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Recovery doubly hard for wounded reservists

Many hospitalized far from families

FORT LEWIS, Wash. -- National Guard Sergeant Rick Harvey, who injured his spine in Iraq, has doctor's appointments twice a week, but otherwise has nothing to do while he recovers at a military base some 300 miles away from his family in Oregon.

''I just want to go home. I want to be demobilized," Harvey, 46, of Milton-Freewater, Ore. He has been living in the barracks at the base for the past nine months.

Harvey is one of nearly 5,000 sick or wounded National Guard and Army Reserve soldiers around the country receiving medical care at Army bases far from their homes and families.

Regular Army soldiers usually recuperate at their home bases. But as the Army prepared for war -- plans in which Reserve and Guard troops figured prominently -- it never worked up a policy to allow the part-time soldiers to convalesce near their homes.

''The system is evolving," said Jaime Cavazos, spokesman for the Army Medical Command in San Antonio.

Guard and Reserve soldiers on medical hold can choose to resign active duty status to return home while recovering, but they lose their military pay if they do. Leaving base also can delay their consideration for permanent disability status.

Sergeant Garth Leighton of Bend, Ore., is recovering at Fort Lewis from a broken back. In a recent meeting with his commanding general, Leighton complained that he cannot return home because his family relies on his military pay.

''I want out of here; I can hardly stand it," he said. ''When I did this thing, I put myself at risk . . . I did not sign up to put my family at risk."

Concerns on the part of Oregon Guardsmen prompted Governor Ted Kulongoski and Representative Darlene Hooley, Democrat of Oregon, to ask the Pentagon to explain its policy.

Army Medical Command spokesman Cavazos said Army doctors prefer to retain soldiers on base to ensure the best treatment possible, but said Army policies for wounded Guard members are in flux.

Fort Lewis spokesman Jeff Young said options are improving for wounded Guard soldiers recovering at the base. He said some soldiers are released when they can be treated safely at local hospitals and when the demands of duty allow.

In recent months, the National Guard has begun sending troops back to their home states for treatment. Under the Community Based Health Care Initiative, soldiers are provided with a job suited to their injuries at a National Guard armory and offered treatment at a Veterans Affairs clinic or with private doctors.

In the meantime, Harvey -- whose back was injured when he fell from a fuel truck -- said that he is so frustrated he loses his temper. ''They gear and train to go to war, but they don't have any clue what will happen when we come back," he said.

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