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Forgetful Green Beret Misdiagnosed as Derelict

Sent home from Kuwait for court-martial, he was found to be dying of a rare brain disease.

November 23, 2003|Lisa Falkenberg | Associated Press Writer

KARNACK, Texas — By the time he shipped out for the war in Iraq in January, Special Forces Sgt. James Alford was a wreck of a soldier.

For five months, he had been doing odd things. He disappeared from Ft. Campbell, Ky., for several days last year. He lost equipment and lied to superiors. In December, he was demoted from staff sergeant to sergeant.

In the Kuwaiti desert, he came apart. The hotshot Green Beret who a year earlier ran circles around his team members and was recommended for a Bronze Star in Afghanistan was ordered to carry a notepad to remember orders. By March, he was being cited for dereliction of duty, larceny and lying to superiors. He couldn't even keep track of his gas mask.

Finally, in April, his commanders had had enough. They ordered him to return to Ft. Campbell to be court-martialed and kicked out of the Special Forces.

"Your conduct is inconsistent with the integrity and professionalism required by a Special Forces soldier," Lt. Col. Christopher E. Conner of the 2nd Battalion, 5th Special Forces Group Headquarters in Kuwait, wrote April 10.

Confused and disgraced, the soldier moved back into his off-base home where he ate canned meat and anchovies, unaware of the day, the month or the year.

Sensing that something was wrong, a neighbor called Alford's parents. They drove 600 miles from east Texas to find a son who'd lost 30 pounds and could no longer drink from a glass, use a telephone, button his shirt or say his wife's name, Amber (a soldier who was still stationed in the Middle East).

They rushed him to an emergency room. A month and several hospitals later, Alford's family learned that he was dying of an illness that was eating away his brain. He had Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, an extremely rare and fatal degenerative brain disorder akin to mad cow disease that causes rapid, progressive dementia.

Now, as the 25-year-old soldier wastes away in his boyhood home, his parents and his wife are struggling to understand how the military could have misdiagnosed Alford's erratic, forgetful behavior as nothing more than the symptoms of a sloppy, incompetent soldier.

"He had to hold his hands to keep them from shaking, but they saw nothing wrong with my child," his mother, Gail Alford, a nine-year Army veteran, said recently from her home in a rural community near Marshall, Texas.

Alford's parents say Special Forces staff told them that a doctor in Kuwait found nothing wrong with him and that a psychiatrist there had said Alford was "faking it."

Army officials have acknowledged that the 5th Special Forces Group erred and, more than eight months after Alford's demotion, they reinstated his staff sergeant rank.

But the dying soldier's family wants more. They want a public apology for the ridicule and disgrace that they say filled Alford's final days of service.

"They called him stupid, told him he was lazy, he was a liar, that he wasn't any good, that he was a faker," his mother said, recalling what little her son could tell her about his time in Kuwait. "I want them shamed the way they shamed my son."

And they want his pay restored and his medical benefits maintained. The Army declared Alford medically incompetent, placed him on retirement status and froze his pay earlier this month until his parents could prove in court that they were his legal guardians. His mother says she was given power of attorney long ago.

Army officials say they're just following procedures intended to protect soldiers.

Alford's father, retired Army Command Sgt. Maj. John Alford, who served 34 years, said that Army doctors have been caring and professional, and that commanders stationed his son's wife, Army Spc. Amber Alford, in Texas near her husband.

He mainly faults the Special Forces.

"I think they did everything they could to break him, mentally and physically," he said.

Maj. Robert Gowan, a spokesman for Army Special Forces Command, said 5th Group is saddened by the soldier's disease and regretful that it wasn't diagnosed sooner. But, he said, a public apology may not be appropriate.

"This disease was not caused by 5th Group and the regret they express is in regards to the tragedy," Gowan said last week, adding that the unit "acted on the information they had available at the time. If everyone would have known that Sgt. Alford was sick, things might have been handled differently."

Alford himself may have tried to conceal his symptoms, said Dr. Steve J. Williams, a clinical fellow in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn.

"He was capable of masking the symptoms because he was resourceful and he was a smart guy," said Williams, who diagnosed Alford with Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. "I'd ask him what floor he was on and I could catch him looking outside and counting the number of windows."

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