Sgt. 1st Class Richard Stayskal was deployed to Ramadi, Iraq, in 2004 when he was shot by a sniper. The round, which he kept as a souvenir, pierced his left lung and nearly killed him.
The round is "a reminder of how fragile life is,” he told Charlotte’s Fox 46. “Something could change everything in an instant.”
Despite beating the odds of such a grievous wound in combat, something else did change in an instant for the 37-year-old Green Beret when, following a June 2017 visit to a civilian doctor to address severe breathing issues the Army told him was a simple case of pneumonia, he received terrible news.
“Did a biopsy and when I woke up my wife was crying,” Stayskal told Fox 46. “And he [the doctor] was telling her that I had cancer.”
The tumor in Stayskal’s lungs had been egregiously misdiagnosed by Army doctors, the report said, allowing it to double in size and spread to other vital organs — and into stage four terminal lung cancer.
Now, the father of two daughters, ages 9 and 11, said doctors have given him a life expectancy of at least a year.
This outcome, the report said, could have been significantly altered had Army medical practitioners observed what board-certified radiologist Dr. Louis Leskosky argued even an inexperienced, “[first year] resident would have seen.”
Stayskal began experiencing extreme breathing problems in January 2017, the report said.
“While I was sleeping I felt like I was drowning,” he told Fox 46.
Alarmed by his condition, he checked himself into the hospital at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, where doctors took a CT scan and casually sent him home.
“They didn’t tell me anything,” he said. “They said my physical was fine.”
Instead, his condition rapidly deteriorated, and by May 2017, a barely-conscious Stayskal had to be rushed by his wife, Megan, to Womack Army Medical Center on post.
“They had to crack down on his chest to get him to pop his eyes open,” Megan Stayskal told Fox 46, adding that all she could think at the time was, “Why is he not breathing?”
Records from that emergency visit to the hospital reportedly show that doctors re-evaluated Stayskal’s January CT scan and noticed an irregularity that needed to be addressed, calling what they saw a “possible mediastinal mass” and recommending a “transbronchial biopsy,” the investigation said.
Inexplicably, Stayskal and his wife were reportedly relayed none of this critical information, and were instead sent home after being told it was simply a case of pneumonia.
“They checked my heart and said everything was fine,” Stayskal said.
Once again, the reported diagnosis of “fine” proved to be a heinous miscarriage of medical care.
Stayskal began coughing up blood soon after being diagnosed with pneumonia. Observing his worsening symptoms, he called an on-post pulmonologist, but as a new patient, was reportedly told he would have to wait at least a month just for an appointment.
“I said, ‘Something isn’t right. I need to be looked at. Somebody needs to take me seriously. Somebody needs to help me,’” he told Fox 46. “And I just kept getting told, ‘Sir, new patients are not a priority.’”
After the terminal cancer diagnosis one month later, Stayskal made contact with attorney Natalie Khawam of the Whistleblower Law Firm, who agreed to represent the special operations soldier and pursue a “$10 million lawsuit against the government alleging medical malpractice,” the Fox 46 report said.
Leskosky, who was hired by the Whistleblower Law Firm to review the CT scans performed by the Army, was astonished that Army doctors missed blatant indicators, allowing the tumor to spread aggressively without treatment.
“It was completely obvious," Leskosky told Fox 46. "I can’t fathom how any experienced radiologist missed this case. ... If I were testifying in court, I would call it a case of gross malpractice.”
Asked how an earlier detection of the tumor could have changed present circumstances, Khawam replied, “We don’t have a man who’s dying.”
Despite the egregious nature of alleged malpractice, Stayskal’s case is unlikely to ever go to trial.
The 1950 Supreme Court decision known as the “Feres Doctrine” prevents active duty military personnel from suing the government for injuries sustained as a result of military service. Conversely, civilians are well within their rights to sue for cases of medical malpractice.
Many, however, argue that the government’s application of the Feres Doctrine, a move primarily designed to prevent personnel from suing for war-related injuries, is excessively broad.
“Soldiers signed up to fight for our country, fight for our freedom,” Khawam told Fox 46. “They didn’t sign up to be malpracticed on.”
North Carolina Rep. Richard Hudson, R-Concord, is among those who think the Feres Doctrine is unfairly applied. After hearing Stayskal’s story, Hudson drafted legislation with the intent to change the parameters of the Feres Doctrine to allow service members the right to sue the government under specific circumstances.
“My internal sense of fairness tells me there ought to be some limited pathway for folks like Rich who can pursue this,” Hudson told Fox 46. "He’s a real American hero who put his life on the line for his country and to see what he’s going through now is tough.”
When reached, Department of Defense officials would not comment on Stayskal’s case.
“Reversal of the Feres Doctrine would destroy the premise of the no-fault compensation system currently applicable to all workers' compensation programs, including military compensation programs,” Pentagon spokesperson Maj. Carla Gleason told Fox 46.
Khawam, meanwhile, insists the case for Stayskal, who nearly gave up his life for his country without objection, has nothing to do with workers' comp, a sentiment echoed by Hudson.
“It violates a sense of right and wrong,” he said.
‘IF IT’S FALSE HOPE, IT’S STILL HOPE’
Amid the whirlwind of legal procedures and medical treatment plans, Stayskal remains steadfast in trying to be the best husband and father he can be — for as long as he can.
“I try to set examples for my kids of, you gotta do the right thing, you gotta fix the things that are broken,” he said. “If you don’t do it, who else is going to do it?”
While trying to prepare his wife and children for a future that doesn’t include him, Stayskal simultaneously goes about his days trying to maintain a positive outlook, often ignoring that the cancer even exists.
“If it’s false hope, it’s still hope," he said. "But there’s days I just really try not to believe that I have it. And, some days, I’m good at convincing myself.”
No matter how thorough the convincing, however, questions of one’s own mortality are bound to creep in, a factor the Purple Heart recipient who cheated death in Ramadi those many years ago confronts often.
“Sometimes you just stare at the things you never stared at before,” he said. “Wondering how many more times you’ll get to see them.
“Things like this I don’t think should happen. It’s unfair.”
J.D. Simkins is a writer and editor for Military Times, and a USMC veteran.