What happens to long haul COVID in the military?


“I had a slight headache.

This is how the Senior Field Artillery NCO’s fight with COVID-19 began during his deployment to the Middle East last year. Soon he was in the intensive care unit of a US military hospital, where he would stay for about a month.

“Around the seventh day, that’s when it all went downhill,” said the non-commissioned officer, who requested anonymity to speak freely about his experience to the Army Times. “I sat in the shower for about three hours – about 2:00 am until 5:00 am, a low point in my life – throwing up all over myself, urinating on myself, defecating on myself. “

Things have hardly improved since.

He is one of the so-called “long-haul COVIDs” still exhibiting life-altering symptoms of the disease almost a year later. He says his persistent shortness of breath, brain fog, fatigue, dizziness and short-term memory loss prevent him from doing his job as a soldier.

“I am currently working about two, three hours a day and I will be working a maximum of around 10 hours a week,” he said. “I don’t think I’m an asset to my organization… I can’t get on a plane and deploy after a year [of recovery]. It should be obvious that I’m separated… I don’t see the benefit of keeping myself as a soldier on active duty.

Army Times spoke with the senior non-commissioned officer and two other soldiers with persistent symptoms of COVID-19 of varying severity, in addition to asking military officials and veterans about medical support for the long – couriers.

Simply put: Death isn’t the only result of COVID-19 that can take a soldier out of combat for good.

If a soldier “believes he is suffering from a chronic illness attributed to an on-duty event, injury or diagnosis (including COVID-19), he is strongly encouraged to file a claim.” [for disability benefits,” VA spokesperson Gina Jackson told Army Times.

Jackson also pointed to a law signed earlier this year that directed the VA to presume that COVID-19 diagnoses are service-connected for all active-duty troops or reserve component personnel serving on federal active duty.

According to the CDC’s website, an unknown number of people who survive the disease experience “post-COVID conditions,” which it describes as “a wide range of new, returning, or ongoing health problems people can experience four or more weeks after being first infected with the virus.”

The Long COVID Alliance, a collective working to inform policymakers about the disease and accelerate research into the condition, estimates that 3.2 million Americans are experiencing at least one post-infection symptom.

Scientists aren’t sure how common long COVID is, or many people experience physically-disabling symptoms like that of the field artillery NCO. One expert told the Wall Street Journal in June that as many as 5 percent of people could have long-term issues with the disease.

Many symptoms of long COVID can affect a soldier’s ability to perform their job. According to the CDC, the symptoms can include:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Tiredness or fatigue
  • Symptoms that get worse after physical or mental activities
  • Difficulty thinking or concentrating (“brain fog”)
  • Cough
  • Chest or stomach pain
  • Headache
  • Fast-beating or pounding heart (also known as heart palpitations)
  • Sleep problems
  • Dizziness on standing (lightheadedness)
  • Mood changes
  • Change in smell or taste

Despite the potential impact, the Army doesn’t know how many soldiers are suffering with long COVID, service spokesperson Lt. Col. Gabriel Ramirez told Army Times.

“Currently the number of Soldiers receiving treatment for long-haul COVID is not tracked by the Army,” Ramirez said. “The Army provides the same accommodations and treatment for all Soldiers with medical issues.”

But some soldiers who still have residual symptoms are worried they won’t be able to continue serving or get the medical care they need.

The field artillery NCO will leave the Army next year, he said, though he was already eligible for retirement when he became sick.

“Military doctors don’t take me seriously,” a second soldier told Army Times. He says he contracted the disease while in training early last year, but there wasn’t testing available at the time.

“I had severe flu-like symptoms, plus the signature [ones like] no taste, no smell, cough, fever [and] congestion, ”even though he’s only in his late twenties, he said. Today, over a year and a half after falling ill, he still suffers from heart palpitations and extreme shortness of breath during exercise.

The second soldier says medical professionals don’t take him seriously because he has never had a positive COVID-19 test – or any test for that matter. He fears falling through the cracks and losing his military career, which he described as a second chance at life.

“I had planned to do the 20 [years to earn a retirement], but I’m very worried about whether I will be able to stay at home if the doctors don’t start taking me seriously, ”he said.

Army medics, he added, have yet to order him to undergo a chest CT scan, which medical researchers have used to identify lasting lung damage in a large subset of COVID survivors and patients. long COVID patients.

“I don’t know what else to do because I’m really terrified that something is going on in my heart and body, and we just can’t seem to figure it out,” the soldier said. “I am told that I am fine, but I can physically feel that something is wrong with my body… I have considered finding a doctor outside of the posts, but the costs are very high and I cannot. to allow. “

Although his job is not physically demanding, he said, he can no longer run three kilometers fast enough to pass the army’s new combat aptitude test. The ACFT has a much slower run time – 21 minutes – than the old PT test.

The military has processes in place to ensure that soldiers medically unable to do their jobs are not immediately forced to leave the military empty-handed.

There are MOS Administrative Detention Review Boards, or MAR2, to see if the soldiers can cut it into another role. And then there’s the built-in disability assessment system to determine VA disability for troops who cannot stay in the service medically, Army spokesman Ramirez said.

To date, “no soldiers have been engaged in a withdrawal process based on COVID-19 conditions,” Ramirez said.

The medical separation process can only begin when a soldier has reached a “medical detention determination point” where an Army medic has determined that a soldier’s health is roughly stable and that the military is probably no longer able to perform its duties, Ramirez added. .

This usually doesn’t happen until 12 months after an injury or illness, according to Ramirez.

The Senior Field Artillery NCO has an approved retirement date and was already going to receive a 100 percent VA disability, so he said he didn’t mind going through the MAR2 and IDES process.

The Second Soldier – who can do his job but will soon no longer meet fitness standards when the military’s moratorium on old PT test results expires – the MAR2 and IDES process may not be what’s happening.

He is more likely to be unintentionally separated for fitness issues before the end of his current contract, which could result in a less than honorable discharge and cost him his GI Bill benefits.

A third soldier reached by Army Times falls into another category – troops with persistent COVID symptoms who may meet continuous service standards.

The soldier, who is in his mid-twenties, was in basic training last fall when he fell ill, he said, but he and the other trainees have not reported their illness or suffered any test.

“The company I was assigned to had just come out of quarantine because a few members had had COVID,” he said. “None of us was going to delay [training] by getting tested and [getting] entire company quarantined [again]. “

He had a mild bout of the disease, he added, with a loss of taste and smell and slight shortness of breath being his main symptoms – they were easy to cover up, and he admitted he “was very selective on who [he] Recount.”

“After we graduated a group of us met and admitted that we all had symptoms [of COVID] around the same time, but there was no way we would stay in [basic training] longer than we need to, ”he said.

His sense of smell hasn’t returned for a year. It does not “generally” affect his work, he said.

“I can’t smell diesel fumes or smoke. In a job like that of the army, that can actually be a danger, ”he said before noting an unexpected bonus:“ I don’t have to smell the barracks.

His chain of command has helped him seek medical attention for the lingering symptom, but he’s not optimistic it will help.

“I don’t have much hope that they can do much from the experiences I’ve heard,” he said. Medical researchers are still trying to find ways to fight long COVID and other similar post-viral syndromes.

He could face an uphill battle trying to get VA care when he leaves the military one day because he has never taken a COVID test. Loss of smell is a recognized compensable disability for the VA even regardless of other conditions – if it can prove connection to the service without a test result.

“I just want to smell it again,” he said. “I loved smelling my morning coffee, cooking, my home – I’m definitely missing a really basic part of the way I used to live life.”

Davis Winkie is a staff reporter covering the military. He initially joined Military Times as a trainee journalist in 2020. Prior to journalism, Davis worked as a military historian. He is also the Human Resources Officer of the Army National Guard.


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