updated 10/20/2003 5:19:59 PM ET 2003-10-20T21:19:59

Spc. Joseph Eason came to Fort Stewart for medical treatment in August after leaving Iraq with five metal shards lodged in his lower body from a mortar round. Eason, a citizen-soldier in the Florida National Guard, says he’d prefer to go home and let a civilian physician treat his wounds. But that’s not an option as long as he is on active duty.

INSTEAD, HE’S SPENT the past two months living in spartan concrete barracks at Fort Stewart, where he says his treatment has amounted to one doctor appointment, a visit to a physician’s assistant and one physical therapy session.

“The medical care here, in my personal opinion, I feel is substandard if any,” said Eason, 35, from Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.

Reports that sick or injured reservists complained of long waits for health care and uncomfortable housing put the Army on the defensive Monday, with post officials saying they’re doing the best they can with what they have.

“We’re constantly working on improvements,” said Col. Joe Barthel, commander of Winn Army Hospital at Fort Stewart.

He acknowledged that the wait for orthopedic procedures is six weeks and “we like to keep that below four weeks. ... Our other surgical services are two to three weeks.”

RESERVISTS ON ‘MEDICAL HOLD’

There are 633 National Guard and Army Reserve troops on what the Army calls “medical hold” for treatment of injuries or illnesses at Fort Stewart, with problems ranging from sprained ankles to war wounds.

The citizen-soldiers aren’t considered sick enough for hospitalization, so they stay in the same minimal barracks, some without air conditioning or private bathrooms, used by healthy reservists.

If the soldiers get well, they go home when their unit is released from active duty. If they’re still waiting for treatment when their units are deactivated, the Army may hold them until they’re healed or discharged.

“We want to take care of soldiers, and we’re not going to send soldiers home broken,” Barthel said.

Eason said he’s been told it could take another nine months for his discharge to go through.

THE WAITING GAME

Spc. Chris Rinchich, an Army Reservist from Myrtle Beach, S.C., says he’s waiting for knee surgery after tearing a ligament in his left knee in Kuwait in May. He said he doesn’t expect to leave Fort Stewart until next summer.

“It’s pending. I’m on a waiting list, I heard,” said the 21-year-old Rinchich, who spent last summer in a cement-block barracks without air conditioning.

Col. John Kidd, garrison commander at Fort Stewart, said improvements are being made to the barracks. Window air conditioning units have been added to some and others have gotten new mattresses in the past month.

“They’re designed for annual training for the National Guard, so they’re fairly bare bones. They’re habitable, but there’s certainly no frills,” he said. “They’re not the best that we would like them to have. We would like to do better.”

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