Forty-nine U.S. service members have died in Operation Desert Shield training accidents and routine operations. The Pentagon says that is to be expected. But our study of one training accident last summer on U.S. soil convinces us that maybe the Pentagon expects too little of itself.
An Army Black Hawk helicopter, like those sent to the Persian Gulf, crashed on a hillside in Arkansas July 27. It took four hours for help to arrive. By that time, five Green Berets were dead and another had lapsed into a coma.
The four-hour delay might be excusable if the helicopter went down in some remote corner of the world. But this crash occurred on the grounds of Fort Chaffee, an Army post in western Arkansas.
Our associate Jim Lynch has learned that there was no medical evacuation helicopter to rush to the crash. Fort Chaffee officials now claim that they could not have landed a medevac helicopter in the dense forest near the crash, even if they had one to land. But the post has one now, standing by for all Special Operations Forces training.
There also was no backup helicopter following the Black Hawk through its training exercise because of lack of available aircraft.
Fort Chaffee officials didn't even know the Black Hawk was training in their airspace until two hours after it crashed. And the Green Berets were flying their mission without batteries for all their radios and night-vision goggles.
A few hours may have made all the difference for Sgt. Charles B. Earnest. He survived the crash, but has been in a coma ever since. Head injury experts call the first hour after an accident, the "Golden Hour," because after it passes each succeeding hour without medical care more than doubles the extent of the brain damage.
Earnest, 28, was a talented young soldier, fluent in two foreign languages, trained in computer programming, sky diving and scuba diving. Now he lies in a bed in Walter Reed Army Medical Center here, hooked to an oxygen machine and fed through a tube in his stomach. His closed eyelids flicker as his eyes move from side to side.
His mother, Minna Earnest, sleeps on a trundle bed next to her son. She fears the hospital is not staffed to give him the attention he needs, so she monitors his oxygen and food tubes. On Thanksgiving day, Mrs. Earnest went to the hospital cafeteria for a cup of coffee. Ten minutes later when she got back, her purse had been stolen right from the room of her comatose son.
A civilian neurologist recommended that Sgt. Earnest be treated with a high-tech coma-stimuli rehabilitation program. But the Army bureaucracy says it is too expensive and "unproven."
Dr. James Wasco, the medical director of the New Medico Head Injury System, a national network of rehabilitation clinics, told us that the therapy recommended for Earnest is so widely accepted that most insurance companies will cover it without hesitation.
There are signs that Sgt. Earnest isn't a hopeless case. He once stuck out his tongue when his mother asked him to, and he squeezed the hand of his godmother when she said goodbye. Mrs. Earnest says the Army may have given up, but her son hasn't.