If he had his way, Sgt. 1st Class Scott Irving said he would report for duty Monday morning.
If he had his way, Sgt. 1st Class Scott Irving said he would report for duty Monday morning.
The 6-foot-plus soldier with a "high and dry" military-style crewcut imagines answering the call as an acting infantry first sergeant for the Oregon Army National Guard's 1st Battalion of the 186th Infantry, headquartered in Ashland.
"But I know I can't — I've accepted that," he said during an interview from his hospital bed at a Medford physical rehabilitation center, which he described as a nursing home.
"I accepted that my back is not going to get well enough for me to return to duty," said the 39-year-old father of three young children as his wife, Jennifer, sat at his side.
He cannot walk without assistance because of paralysis of his left leg. His right arm quivers with a steady tremor. His speech is slow with long pauses, the result of seizures.
"I was always very proud of being in the Guard, of being a soldier," said Irving, who spent 21 years as a citizen-soldier. "But I am absolutely ashamed and disgusted with how this case has been handled."
Irving has requested a medical retirement from the Guard with full benefits. But Guard officials have said he doesn't merit a medical discharge at this point. They initially wanted to reduce his full-time status, making him a part-time soldier who would report for duty one weekend a month beginning Monday.
However, late Friday Maj. Gen. Raymond F. Rees, state adjutant general for the Guard, ordered a complete review of Irving's situation. That review will include his medical readiness, ability to perform duties of a soldier and potential for full-time employment in the Guard, officials said.
Rees ordered a team of Oregon Military Department officials to meet with Irving and his family to review both the situation and possible outcomes based on the medical diagnosis from civilian and military doctors.
Once that review is complete, a final determination on Irving's status will be made, Rees said.
"It is the policy of the Oregon National Guard to assist every soldier in receiving all benefits they may be eligible to receive related to that soldier's service," said Brig. Gen. Mike Caldwell, deputy director of the Guard, in a prepared statement.
"We fully intend to ensure that Sgt. 1st Class Irving and his family understand these benefits and can access the system to get them," Caldwell added.
Caldwell is among Guard officers and medical specialists expected to meet with family members on Tuesday.
"We're not out to get him — he served honorably for 20 years," stressed Capt. Steve Bomar, spokesman for the Guard's state headquarters in Salem.
No final decision has been made in his case, he said, although noting officials can't talk about specifics unless a waiver is signed by the sergeant releasing that information.
"The bottom line is this: we want to take care of him," Bomar said. "We are still working with medical professionals to determine the outcome."
It's a complicated story with varying views, but both factions agree on one point: Irving's back injuries sustained in May 2007, injuries which contributed largely to his health problems, were service connected.
At odds are U.S. Army doctors at Madigan Army Medical Center in Fort Lewis, Wash., and Irving's civilian doctors. Those in military uniform say he is fit for duty, while the civilian doctors disagree.
Any order that he report for duty once a month for drill would be laughable if he wasn't so worried about his family, Irving said.
"If I'm fit for duty, I should be able to do a 12-mile road march carrying a 40-pound rucksack on my back and 40 pounds of gear on my body," he said. "I would also be able to carry my weapon and wear my Kevlar and boots.
"I would also be able to do 42 push-ups in two minutes, 52 sit-ups in two minutes and run the two-mile run in 16:30," he added. "I can't even walk without assistance."
Without a medical discharge or the ability to work for the Guard, he will be left without a job or a retirement, he said.
White City resident Rob King, 37, a former staff sergeant who served 12 years in the Guard from 1989 until 2001, is upset over how his former comrade-in-arms is being treated.
"He's stubborn, but he is totally squared away," King said, using military parlance to describe a good soldier. "Scott and I were in the same unit. He always had his stuff done on time."
There is no doubt Irving would step forward if it were humanly possible to report for duty, he said.
"This frustrates me to no end," King added. "It pisses me off. He put in 21 years. It doesn't take a brain surgeon to figure out he is not fit for duty. If he says he can't do it, then he can't do it. And it's obvious by looking at him that he can't do it."
Jennifer Irving, who works part-time in medical transcriptions, said the experience has been difficult both financially and emotionally for the family.
"I've gone from extreme anger to frustration and disappointment to being flabbergasted," she said. "Fighting the military and the insurance while trying to keep my family unit's spirit up has been really hard for us."
A 1989 graduate of Eagle Point High School where he played football, Irving joined the Guard with six other local youths immediately after high school.
"When I started out in the Guard, my goal was to be the state sergeant major someday," Irving said of the Guard's highest enlisted rank. "It was my career. I loved it."
After six years as a part-time soldier, he had made the cut to serve in the Guard full time. A 1996 photograph in the Mail Tribune shows Irving as one of two sergeants demonstrating rappelling off the top of the Walmart store in Medford. He served on training deployments to Japan and French Guiana. He served as a military science instructor at Southern Oregon University in Ashland. And during his service as a Guard recruiter, he recruited 165 soldiers to the service.
"I took a lot of pride in serving in the Guard," he said, noting he has letters from Guard officers, including Gen. Rees, complimenting him for outstanding service.
His problems began in May 2007 when he suffered a severe back injury at the Guard's motor pool at the Medford Armory.
"I was starting a line of five-ton vehicles," he recalled. "It was wet that day. As I got toward the end of the line, I noticed one of my trucks was blowing blue smoke which told me oil was coming down onto the cylinder. I was looking at that when I took a step down. I fell and hit my head on the truck next to me."
He landed on a rock, a fall that crushed two vertebrae in his lower back, he said.
"I don't know how long I was out," he said.
Although he complained about back problems from the fall, he was later that year given orders to drive a truck to deliver some 50,000 pounds of small-arms ammunition to Boise, Tacoma and Astoria. He would make the trip three times to each site. He and another soldier loaded and unloaded the ammunition for each trip.
"I literally could not walk after that," he said, adding he was then accused of malingering.
The accident eventually led to an eight-hour surgery in Ashland to replace two of the lower discs in his back.
Complications from his back injury and other injuries, most of which were sustained during Guard operations, have resulted in debilitating seizures which have caused two vehicle accidents and paralysis requiring weeks of physical, occupational and vocal therapy, his family said.
Two weeks after a car accident last October, he was taken back to medical doctors at Fort Lewis.
"They took all the seats out of a Guard van, put me on a litter and drove me up Interstate 5," he said. "I was in so much pain I told them to pull over in Albany so they could give me a shot of something for pain."
He was then accused of abusing drugs, he said.
"That's an issue they should bring up with my doctor," he said. "I take my medications when I'm supposed to be taking them. Whether they think I am on too much, that's an issue for them to bring up with my doctor."
Meanwhile, Irving believes the Guard has a history of trying to boot out soldiers who have requested a medical retirement.
"I have fought this very thing with other soldiers for years to keep them from losing their benefits," he said.
He is bitter that he received a letter from the Guard questioning his honesty and integrity.
"I wrote back to tell them the only honesty and integrity that's in question lies within the organization of the Oregon Army National Guard," he said. "Somebody with honesty and integrity needs to take a look at their policies and make sure other soldiers haven't been screwed like I have."
If he is forced to return to duty, he will not be able to serve, causing him to be discharged without benefits, he said.
"There would be no medical retirement for me, no medical for me or my family," he said. "I would remain broken. They would kick me out of here. And I can't even get up the steps to my own damn house."
He turned his head toward the window in frustration as his eyes glistened.
"I just don't want this to happen to any other soldier," he said as he looked away.
Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.