The best way to get a quack out of the medical profession is a malpractice suit from an injured patient or heat from fellow doctors. The military has virtually eliminated both options and created a haven for incompetence.

We reported recently on the growing frustrations of GIs who are prevented by law from suing military doctors for malpractice. But the doctors who complain about negligent patient care by their peers are also denied justice.

These whistle-blowers take the risk of being labeled psychotic. Some have even been committed to mental hospitals because it was easier for the military to silence them than to solve the problems.

At worst, the whistle-blowers are chronic complainers who annoy their superiors. At best, they are competent professionals who refuse to keep quiet. But they are not necessarily insane.

John Reiman was once the chief of anesthesiology at Lakenheath Air Base, a U.S. base in England. Three years ago he began reporting what he thought was negligence at the base hospital. Instead of thanking him, the Air Force put Reiman in a mental institution in Texas.

In 1987, Reiman used the proper chain of command to report three cases of what he considered to be shoddy treatment at Lakenheath. All three patients died.

The Air Force inspector general looked into Reiman's complaints. The inspectors found that the Lakenheath staff was overworked and that the hospital had a higher infant mortality rate than is standard in the United States or Britain. But the probers also dismissed Reiman's specific allegations.

The Air Force wasn't finished with Reiman. He was ordered to have a psychiatric exam. Before he blew the whistle on Lakenheath, Reiman's personnel evaluations called him an "enthusiastic and intelligent" doctor who made "excellent contributions" to the hospital. After he blew the whistle, the Air Force ordered him to see the base psychiatrist.

A neurologist at the University of London said Reiman was perfectly normal, but the Air Force transferred him to a psychiatric ward in Texas.

Reiman protested and was allowed a trip to Washington to prepare his defense. But here, Reiman made the mistake of knocking on too many doors on Capitol Hill to sound his warning about the quality of care at Lakenheath.

Senior military officials decided Reiman was making a pest of himself and ordered him back to Texas. He was put in the mental ward again for nine weeks.

In late 1989, Reiman left the Air Force when his hitch was up. He is now practicing in a California hospital, a job he got after impartial military doctors in Texas declared him to be of sound mind.

Reiman is not alone. Congress has repeatedly held hearings to listen to the horror stories of whistle-blowers who say the military uses psychiatry as harassment.

Rep. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) recently introduced legislation to stop the military from punishing whistle-blowers with psychiatric evaluations. The bill is pending in the House Armed Services Committee, and the Defense Department has recommended against it.