HUNTINGTON BEACH — Willie Harris is angry--angry that his once strong legs will barely support him and that a promising pro-basketball career never materialized.
He's also angry that the Air Force refuses to take responsibility for his condition, he says.
Harris, 50, of Huntington Beach, says his treatment by Air Force physicians in the early 1960s transformed him from a promising athlete into a bitter, disabled veteran who walks only with pain and difficulty and whose condition is expected to worsen.
After a 25-year fight, Harris may finally get his day in court if Congress approves a bill that allows him to bypass the doctrine that forbids malpractice lawsuits against the military.
But the bill, HR 760, is being held up by a congressman from Wisconsin. Bills for private individuals need a unanimous vote by the House to pass.
Harris claims that he was given repeated cortisone injections by military doctors after he fell and injured both knees during an Air Force basketball game. He said that the cortisone was injected into his knee joints to relieve the pain so he could continue playing for the Air Force team for almost two years. He was never warned of the potential risks associated with the cortisone treatments, which include deterioration of cartilage in the joints, he said.
Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) opposes Harris' private relief bill and has requested more research on whether Air Force doctors knew of the potential risks of cortisone injections at the time they treated Harris.
"Mr. Sensenbrenner has asked for more information before he makes any final decision," said Arlene Davis, a member of Sensenbrenner's Washington staff working on Harris' case. "Because this is something that happened quite a number of years ago what we know now (about cortisone) may be very different from what was known then."
Despite Sensenbrenner's objections, Harris said he is confident that his bill will eventually pass.
"I really think I have a shot this time," Harris said during a recent interview at his home.
In a decade of trying to get a bill in Congress, Harris has managed to gain the support of Reps. Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove) and George E. Brown Jr. (D-Colton). Dornan and Brown both are trying to answer Sensenbrenner's questions, their staffs said.
"It's difficult because we're trying to find evidence to prove that in 1963 an Air Force doctor should have known that cortisone could cause harm," said Bill Grady, a member of Brown's staff who is researching Harris' case.
Working in tandem with Dornan's staff, Grady said the staffs are trying to get enough information to satisfy Sensenbrenner before they bring the bill up for a vote.
Bill Fallon, a spokesman for Dornan's Washington staff, said: "The congressman really believes Harris has a case without suggesting what the outcome of that case should be. All we're doing is trying to help him get his case to court."
Fallon said Harris' case has gone further than most private relief bills because it moved out of the House Judiciary Committee, a process that took a unanimous vote enabling it to come before Congress.
Maj. Jackie Trotter, a spokeswoman for the Air Force, said no one in the Air Force could comment on Harris' case because personnel are forbidden to comment on any pending legislation unless requested by Congress.
Harris' past attempts to sue the Air Force for malpractice have been thwarted by the Feres doctrine, which prohibits members of the armed services, their survivors and dependents from suing the federal government for incidents related to military service.
Harris said he spent long hours perfecting his basketball skills. He said he saw basketball as a way for a young black man born on a plantation in Mississippi to get out of a bleak economic future.
"For most black kids in those days, the only way out of the corn fields was being an entertainer or in sports," he said. "I was blessed that I had all the talent and the tools to be in sports. I wanted to be the first kid from a plantation in Mississippi to make it to the pros."
Harris enlisted in the Air Force in 1962 because of advertisements that the Air Force had a sports program. Harris was eventually stationed at Kirkland Air Force Base near Albuquerque. He said he still remembers vividly his glory days, once scoring a record 56 points and getting 32 rebounds in an Air Force championship game.
But during another championship game in Florida in February, 1963, he fell and injured both knees. However, he said, the injury did not keep him from playing basketball for the Air Force, despite continuing pain.
Harris said he was routinely given cortisone injections before games, estimating that 100 shots were administered over a three-year period.
"They never told me cortisone was a steroid," Harris said. "Even if they had, I was only 22 years old and didn't know what steroids was. I trusted them to do the right thing."