Face of Defense: Soldier Fights to Deploy Despite Medical Condition
By Army Sgt. 1st Class Chris Seaton
Special to American Forces Press Service
CAMP TAJI, Iraq, May 19, 2008 “Chief, what the heck are you doing?”
Army Chief Warrant Officer 3 Christian Smith, a Villa Grove, Ill., native, stands at the open hood of a Humvee at Camp Taji, Iraq, May 16, 2008. Smith is the squadron maintenance technician for 4th Squadron, 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, Task Force 12, Multinational Division Baghdad. He fought for, and won, the opportunity to deploy to Iraq in November despite being diagnosed with multifocal motor neuropathy. U.S. Army photo by Sgt. 1st Class Chris Seaton, Multinational Division Baghdad
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Army Chief Warrant Officer 3 Christian Smith, a maintenance technician who had just tripped and fallen to the ground, looked up at his confused motor sergeant. Smith, who hails from Villa Grove, Ill., but was on a deployment to Iraq, had fallen a lot lately. Something was wrong with his left leg, and he didn’t know what. All he knew was that it made him fall.
“I don’t know,” Smith replied. “I just fell. It happens all the time.”
“Well next time, yell ‘Incoming,’ and I’ll go down with you,” the sergeant said.
The year was 2003, and Smith was deployed with a military police brigade. Over the course of the deployment, he noticed his muscles growing alarmingly weaker.
“It was very humbling, to say the least,” he said. “There wasn’t much I could do about it then, but I knew that once I got back from [Iraq], I was going to have to go see a doctor and find out what was going on.”
In February 2005, after multiple visits to doctors, Smith underwent surgery for a herniated disc in his back to help relieve pressure on what his doctor thought was a pinched nerve. It didn’t help. By this time, he couldn’t move the toes of his left foot, and he continued to grow weaker.
Still more visits to more doctors led him to a neurologist. Late in September 2005, he was diagnosed with multifocal motor neuropathy.
“It’s a condition where my body thinks there’s something wrong with the nerves,” Smith explained. “It’s attacking my nerves, and it doesn’t allow good conduction for the signals that tell the muscles to move. But there’s treatment for it.”
Every three weeks, he underwent an intravenous immunoglobulin treatment at a local hospital. By this time, Smith’s unit was on mobilization orders for deployment, but he was scheduled to stay with the rear detachment.
“Within four or five days, I started noticing a lot more strength, and by 10 days after that, I could wiggle my toes and keep my left foot up,” he said. “I went back to the unit and told them the treatment was working. At that point, it was a matter of how the Army medical system was going to handle this.”
The unit deployed. Despite his objections, Smith stayed at Fort Hood, Texas.
“The doc said when he diagnosed me that this is a legitimate medical condition that would definitely keep me from deploying,” he said. “He asked me why I’d want to deploy if I didn’t have to.
“It’s one of those things where, having grown up playing sports, you spend all that time practicing with a team; and, all of a sudden, they go to an away game, out of town, and you’re stuck at home,” he added. “It’s not a good feeling.”
A year and a half later, Smith found himself facing the same situation, this time with a new team. He was newly assigned to Troop R, 4th Squadron, 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, once again on orders for Iraq.
The treatments were working, and Smith said he was determined not to be left behind again. He began what he called a very frustrating process to make himself deployable.
Once again, the doctors said no. A chain of e-mails revealed one medical professional after another who believed he had no business deploying. They cited the risk for contamination, with possible secondary effects of anaphylaxis or renal failure. They said his understanding of the condition was “oversimplified.”
“My response to those e-mails was rather lengthy,” he said. “They thought I was oversimplifying the condition, and I thought they were over-exaggerating it.”
In his response, he said he outlined his own research -- discussing the shelf life of the medication and the plan that he and squadron surgeon Maj. (Dr.) Sean Hollonbeck, had come up with to administer the treatments.
“The Army is attempting and perfecting new things in the theater of operation every day,” he wrote. “Why not this?”
“I didn’t think he’d get to go based on seeing the e-mail traffic from the doctors in theater,” said Capt. Jeffery Hernandez, his troop commander. “I never tried to talk him out of it, though. He had such a desire to be with the troops and support the mission.”
“You have to understand Chief,” 1st Lt. Larry Burney, the squadron maintenance officer, said. “He’s the type of person who doesn’t take no for an answer when it comes to anything.”
“I guess I just felt like I’m in the Army to do a job,” Smith said. “Having been left back once, I told my wife, ‘If I can’t deploy and go do what I’ve trained to do, then I shouldn’t be doing this any more.’”
The fight for Smith to deploy became personal for Troop R. In a situation where some would look for excuses not to go, he was fighting for a chance to serve.
“A lot of people try to get out of deployments for one reason or another, and here he is doing everything he can to go when he had his ticket out,” Burney said. “Of course, that had an impact on the troops. Some people flat-out said, ‘If Chief doesn’t go, I don’t want to go either.’”
After a successful month at Fort Irwin, Calif., at the National Training Center, during which an enlisted combat medic administered the treatment, the Army finally relented. Smith deployed to Multinational Division Baghdad as part of Task Force 12 in November 2007.
“Army doctrine is to train in times of peace and to win at war,” Smith said. “I see a lot of value in what I did as a rear detachment soldier, but if the Army’s at war, I want to go.”
“I know it motivates me,” Sgt. Nelson Dawson, a soldier in Smith’s troop, said. “Even though he has this condition and could have stayed home with his family, he chose to come here and be with his soldiers. He said, ‘You know what? … I can still do my job. Why can’t I go?’”
He continues his treatments every third week at the aviation clinic here. So far, he said, everything has gone as planned.
“Other than his treatment days, I don’t think he’s taken a day off since he’s been here,” his commander said.
“At one point during the process, I had a doctor ask me what I wanted to get from all this,” Smith recalled. “I said, ‘I want to be able to run and play basketball and do all the things I could do before.’ He said, ‘You mean you plan on staying in the military?’
“I said, ‘Well yeah, if I can do all those other things, of course I want to stay in the military,’” he went on. “If I wanted to get out, I would have done it a long time ago, but that’s just not me.”
(Army Sgt. 1st Class Chris Seaton serves in Multinational Division Baghdad with the Task Force 12 Public Affairs Office.)