By KIMBERLY HEFLING Associated Press Writer
4:54 PM CST, February 15, 2008
WASHINGTON - A Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee said Friday it was inappropriate for the Army's surgeon general to compare the overdose deaths of injured soldiers in the military's care to that of actor Heath Ledger.
Earlier this month, Army Surgeon General Lt. Gen. Eric B. Schoomaker made reference to the 28-year-old "Brokeback Mountain" star's death as he discussed the overdose deaths of some troops in the Army's "warrior transition units." The units give wounded troops coordinated medical care, financial advice, legal help and other services as they make the adjustments necessary either to return to active duty or re-enter civilian life.
"This isn't restricted to the military, alone, as we all saw the unfortunate death of one of our leading actors recently," Schoomaker told Pentagon reporters. His comments came a day after it was announced that Ledger had died Jan. 22 from an accidental overdose -- the effect of taking several types of painkillers and sedatives.
Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., told reporters during a conference call Friday that likening Ledger's death to the deaths by overdose of wounded soldiers was not appropriate because Ledger was not injured in combat."He didn't have a traumatic brain injury," Bayh said. "He wasn't, as far as I know, under a physician's care or residing in a unit designed to protect him and treat him or given by his own caregivers potentially lethal doses of medication and left to self medicate himself when he had a traumatic brain injury."
Said Bayh, "I just think that analogy is inappropriate and I hope it will stop."The senator pushed for an investigation following the death of Sgt. Gerald Cassidy, a member of the Indiana National Guard. Cassidy, who was in one of the transition units, was found dead in his room Sept. 21 at Fort Knox, Ky., about 15 months after being wounded by a roadside bomb in Iraq.
An autopsy later determined he had been dead for hours and might have been unconscious for days before he was found alone. The Army Criminal Investigation Command determined the death was accidental and caused by a multidrug toxicity complicated by severe atherosclerotic coronary arterial disease.
Paul Boyce, an Army spokesman, said Friday that Schoomaker's intent by the comments was to educate about the growing health risk of overdoses in the military population and the American population as a whole.
Bayh and other Democratic senators on the conference call praised changes that have been made since shoddy outpatient housing and bureaucratic delays were exposed last year at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. But Bayh said the focus has been too heavily placed on Walter Reed. He said the entire system should be reformed.
Also Friday, Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, announced that he was told by the Veterans Affairs Department that veterans diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder while on active duty will automatically have the diagnosis recognized by the VA. The decision could eliminate a hurdle for some veterans as they seek compensation.
On Thursday, the Army said there have been 11 deaths not due to natural causes between June and Feb. 5 in the special transition units. The 11 deaths included four suicides, three accidental overdoses of prescribed medications, three deaths still under investigation and one motor vehicle accident, the Army said.
___Associated Press writer Pauline Jelinek contributed to this report.