When our loved ones join the military, we know that wearing the uniform could cost them their lives.
Military family members do all kinds of calculations about the potential price of serving this nation. We run the numbers and wargame the risks; we bargain with God and make deals with the devil hoping our service member never becomes a casualty.
But what most of us don’t know is that when our family members sign up, they sign away some of their rights — and ours.
Under what’s called the Feres Doctrine, members of the Armed Forces and their families are prohibited from filing claims against the government for death or injury arising from military service.
But it doesn’t just apply to military settings or deaths in the field. The Feres Doctrine also shields military medical providers from malpractice suits by troops — and their dependents.
Feres has been around since a 1950 Supreme Court ruling, but military recruiters never tell the families that it applies to them, too.
Tricia Radenz found out in the worst way possible. On June 9, 2009, her 11-year-old son, Daniel, hanged himself at home.
Like a lot of military kids, his father’s repeat tours were taking a toll. After his dad deployed to Iraq for the second time, military psychiatrists at Fort Hood’s Darnall Army Medical Center prescribed Daniel the drug Celexa.
Celexa has never been approved for pediatric use. It carries a “black box” label, referring to the FDA warning required for prescription drugs that can cause serious injury or death.
In 2003, the U.S. government itself sued Forest Pharmaceuticals, the manufacturer of Celexa, citing that Forest had withheld the negative results of a Celexa study on adolescents, and illegally marketed the drug for use by children when the FDA had only approved it for use in adults. The company paid $313 million in settlements and pled guilty to several crimes, including paying kickbacks to doctors who prescribed the drugs.
Daniel’s mom Tricia, an ER nurse, obtained Daniel’s medical records shortly after his death. She emailed Ft. Hood personnel asking why federal employees were prescribing Celexa to children when the federal government was suing the drug’s manufacturer, but never got an answer.
The records manager at Darnall said they “use FDA guidance” when prescribing black box medications. But the antidepressants they prescribe have explicit warnings about the increased risk of suicidal thinking and behavior in children, adolescents, and young adults.
Apart from criminal negligence, what would explain a scenario where doctors prescribe Celexa to an 11-year-old child, combine it with more black-box meds, including Wellbutrin, Restoril, and Strattera, and then ignore the clear clinical worsening of Daniel’s symptoms, suicidality, and changes in behavior?
Tricia showed Daniel’s records to several lawyers, who all stated that his treatment was “clearly a case of malpractice, a failure to diagnose, and a failure to inform.”
“His providers killed him as sure as if they held a gun to his head and pulled the trigger,” Tricia said.
Issues of criminal liability and malpractice would have been addressed in court had Daniel’s father been a civilian. But since Daniel’s health care was provided by the United States Army, that wasn’t an option under Feres. That needs to change.
Recent efforts to overturn Feres include a congressional hearing and a federal suit being filed by the Whistleblower Law Firm. As we honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice, let’s ensure servicemembers and their families are no longer required to relinquish their rights in the name of freedom.
Stacy Bannerman is the author of Homefront 911 (2015). She’s testified before Congress several times and is the only military family member in U.S. history to return a Freedom Medal to the president.