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AIDS in the Military: Soldiers Tell of Army Base 'Leper Colony'

March 12, 1989|LAURIE GARRETT | Newsday

FT. HOOD, Tex. — As friends looked on, afraid to say anything, Pvt. John O. Brisbois packed his bags last October and left his barracks with no intention of ever going back. Brisbois said he fled the Army, and the only career he had ever wanted, after a demotion and three months of harassment. The trouble came after a blood test showed that he carries the virus that causes AIDS.

"The Army did everything possible to make me want to leave," said Brisbois, who, after three months absent without leave, surrendered and tried to kill himself. He was discharged last month. "I feel I don't have a future anymore. I don't want to die, but I get so depressed."

Brisbois, 24, fled a special barracks wing, known on the base as the "HIV hotel" and "the leper colony," to which he and scores of other soldiers had been transferred.

The barracks wing is the armed forces' first consolidated housing for HIV-infected troops. It represents an escalation of the military's battle against acquired immune deficiency syndrome, one that is being waged with weapons such as blood testing, mandatory pledges to avoid risky sex practices and courts-martial of homosexuals--weapons generally not allowed under civilian law.

"I think, gradually, we are seeing a pattern of more restrictions on what people (infected with AIDS virus) can do," said Kathy Gilbert, head of the Military Law Task Force of the National Lawyers Guild in San Diego.

Military Defends Rules

The military defends these rules as necessary to control the AIDS epidemic. "The reason we have done what we have done," said Maj. Robert Redfield, of Rockville, Md., chief scientist for the Army's AIDS research effort, "is that we think it's good medicine--and it's medicine that might work in the civilian sector, as well."

At Redfield's urging, the Department of Defense began the world's largest mandatory program of HIV screening in October, 1985. Since then, every recruit has been screened, and those whose tests are positive are barred from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines. About 5 million soldiers and recruits have been tested, and 6,000 of those on active duty have shown up positive.

Those already in the military are allowed to remain until they become too sick to work. They are allowed to continue in their chosen military career fields if they are able, said Susan Hansen of the Department of Defense's Public Affairs Office in Washington.

Official policy is that individuals "shall not be separated on the basis of their HIV status," Hansen said. She added that the Pentagon strongly discourages any discrimination.

"The bottom line, in terms of Army policy, is readiness," said Lt. Col. Greg Rickson of the Office of the Secretary of the Army at the Pentagon. "Is Army readiness affected by having an HIV soldier in the ranks? The commander has to weigh that carefully."

At Ft. Hood, home of III Corps and the biggest tank and artillery post in the world, then-commanding officer Lt. Gen. Crosbie Saint exercised his prerogative and ordered HIV-positive soldiers to be removed from their units. Saint, who now commands all U.S. troops in Europe, argued that readiness for deployment to Europe in case of war was more important than prohibitions against such segregation, Army officials at Ft. Hood said.

On April 15, 1988, about 50 HIV-positive soldiers were transferred to the fort's administrative center, which houses a non-combat unit. Most of the transferred men were lodged on the third floor of Building 21006.

No Confidentiality

"I remember that day clearly. How could I forget it?" said one recently discharged soldier who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Everybody knew that we were the HIVs, you know. There was no confidentiality, none at all. It was like somebody put signs around our necks saying 'here come the AIDS patients.' "

After the transfers, many of the men, like Brisbois, were demoted to lesser jobs. According to Maj. James Small, head of the infectious-diseases department at Ft. Hood, about 50 of 70 men who tested positive have been moved to Building 21006. Some who are married have been allowed to continue living off base.

From the outside, the building looks like any of the other barracks that dot the 340-square-mile base, where 38,000 soldiers live. Inside, security is unusually visible, however. Sentries hastily summon superiors to deflect a reporter's questions about the special wing on the third floor. Most soldiers refused to acknowledge questions about the wing. Some would talk, but only off the base, and they asked that their names be withheld.

"Everybody might be scared to say anything," a recently discharged soldier said. "You go through the Article 15 (disciplinary actions) list and see how many are HIVs. They are giving out seven or eight Article 15s a day over there. There's no morale over there. Every night when I was there, someone was put on extra duty. We never could go out at night."

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