Military Questions Test For Lung Damage In Soldiers
By Ben Hall
NASHVILLE, Tenn. - A debate among doctors could determine whether tens of thousands of soldiers are diagnosed as disabled and entitled to benefits.
It comes down to what kind of test is appropriate for soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with severe breathing problems.
Vanderbilt Pulmonologist, Doctor Robert Miller, told NewsChannel 5 Investigates that many soldiers have permanent lung damage that is not detected on standard tests.
But military doctors have openly criticized Doctor Miller's use of an invasive test and even questioned results that show so many sick soldiers.
Many of the soldiers blame their problems on exposure to open air burn pits while they were deployed.
Burn pits are huge holes located beside many bases in Iraq and Afghanistan in which the army dumped its trash and set it on fire.
In May, of last year the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction blasted the military for continuing to use burn pits at Camp Leatherneck in Afghanistan "endangering the health of U.S. military personnel."
Colonel Linda Brown is a doctor at Blanchfield Army Community Hospital, and she has seen soldiers returning from service with breathing problems.
Like the Department of Defense, Dr. Brown is reluctant to blame burn pits for widespread breathing problems in soldiers.
"We don't have any studies yet," Colonel Brown said. "That doesn't mean studies aren't going to be ongoing. It's just what the data is at this time."
Dr. Brown showed us how soldiers are given a standard Pulmonary Function Test (PFT) if they complain of breathing problems.
"I make it a priority to go above and beyond for every one of them to get them the care they need," Colonel Brown said.
But Vanderbilt's Doctor Miller, told NewsChannel 5 Investigates the PFT test and other standard tests do not show permanent damage to small passage ways in the lungs of soldiers.
In fact, Fort Campbell sent 80 soldiers to Dr. Miller beginning in 2004, after PFT tests showed their lungs were normal, but all complained of severe shortness of breath.
Dr. Miller ordered a different and controversial test, a lung biopsy, which is major surgery, on 35 soldiers.
He found all but one had permanent lung damage.
"I'm concerned that burn pits contributed to that," Dr. Miller said. "The department of defense has not embraced this issue."
In 2010, the army suddenly stopped referring soldiers to Dr. Miller, and criticized his use of lung biopsies.
"It's concerning that soldiers who had normal studies were getting biopsies," Colonel Brown said.
She cited other army medical reports that questioned Dr. Miller performing biopsies on so many soldiers.
"There needs to be a clear benefit that outweigh the risk," Dr. Brown said. "This population of soldiers are a vulnerable population."
But Doctor Miller countered. "I don't take any of these biopsies lightly." He continued, "The approach we have taken is a bit unconventional, but one that is necessary to define this problem."
In other words Dr. Miller claims if doctors only do a biopsy when other tests -- like the PFT -- are abnormal, then many soldiers will never be diagnosed with the lung damage he has found.
"It's his opinion, but that's not the consensus of the vast majority of pulmonologists certainly within the DOD," Colonel Brown said.
But military doctors have taken their concerns a step further, even questioning whether all Dr. Miller's soldiers actually had lung damage.
"It would be interesting to see the results of those biopsies reviewed by an outside institution," Colonel Brown said.
Dr. Miller told NewsChannel 5 Investigates, "It's already been reviewed and it has been reported to the Department of Defense."
He said the review has yet not been published, but that it did confirm the Vanderbilt findings.
He says it's time to deal with the problem.
"I hope the military will shift its way of thinking because time is elapsing in dealing with these issues," Dr. Miller said.