Three months after a cluster of bacterial infections tore through Fort Benning, Georgia’s one-station unit training brigades, resulting in a life-threatening flesh-eating disease for 21-year-old Pfc. Dez Del Barba, a command investigation has concluded that drill sergeants didn’t prevent trainees from seeing doctors or pressure them to push through their illnesses.
While drill sergeants with B Company, 1st Battalion, 46th Infantry Regiment, 194th Armored Brigade, acted mostly appropriately, according to a report summary provided to Army Times, the procedures for getting medical treatment need a review, and two personnel could face discipline.
“The investigation revealed that none of Pfc. Del Barba’s drill sergeants or training cadre impeded his access to medical care,” Fort Benning spokesman Ben Garrett told Army Times in a statement Monday. “The investigation did reveal that the protocols for reviewing and receiving Initial Entry Training Soldiers who present themselves for sick-call treatment needs to be improved.”
The investigation began on March 19, more than a month after Pfc. Dez Del Barba was rushed to an on-post emergency room after collapsing in the barracks with necrotizing fasciitis, a particularly harrowing form of Group A Streptococcus infection.
His family specifically asked that the investigating officer travel to Joint Base San Antonio, Texas, to interview him while he recovered from a leg amputation and multiple skin grafts, according to the report.
As of May 5, Del Barba is close to discharge from the U.S. Institute of Surgical Research, according to a Facebook group maintained by his family.
“The commanding general and Fort Benning’s leaders express our deepest sympathy to Pvt. 1st Class Dez Del Barba and his family,” Garrett said in the statement. “We understand that this has been a very difficult time for all involved. We remain fully committed to supporting Pvt. 1st Class Del Barba throughout his recovery.”
Del Barba did not respond to a request for comment by Army Times, but confirmed that he had received the 15-6 and was reviewing it.
The investigating officer also interviewed his drill sergeants and other soldiers who had been in his unit at the time.
“Several trainees testified during interviews that Pfc. Del Barba was admired by his peers, described as physically fit, and the model soldier,” the investigator wrote. “Drill sergeants testified in sworn statements that Pfc. Del Barba was motivated, willing to train, and a hard worker who pushed members of the team.”
The “overwhelming majority” of the then-trainees also said in sworn statements that they were never denied medical treatment, according to the report, including Del Barba. In one instance, a drill sergeant told him to go on bed rest, though it hadn’t been ordered, he told the investigating officer.
Fort Benning’s first record of Del Barba’s condition is a Feb. 4 sick call slip to visit a physical therapist for leg pain, which was never completed, according to the report.
A group of trainees had been turned away that day by the Maneuver Tactical Athlete Care program ― which handles illness and injury treatment and rehabilitation for trainees ― because their sick-call slips were not properly submitted.
“One trainee testified that [a physical therapist] even told the group to ‘go the fuck away’,” the investigator wrote.
The following day, Del Barba was put on profile, preventing him from lower body exercise, running or ruck marching, and scheduled for a Feb. 8 follow-up.
He visited sick call again on Feb. 6 and again on the 7th, where he requested pain medication for his ankle and a physician assistant directed him to gargle with warm salt water to soothe a sore throat, according to the investigation, but there was “no follow-up required.”
However, according to family member who spoke to Army Times in March, medical records show the PA swabbed his throat and recorded a positive strep culture that day, a Thursday, and made a note to follow up on Monday.
And on Sunday, Feb. 10, Del Barba and another private went to the on-post emergency room feeling feverish. with trouble breathing, talking, eating and drinking, the report found.
They were told their sore throats would be gone in a few days and sent back to the barracks with cold medicine, a trainee who accompanied them to the hospital told the investigator.
“He further stated that Pfc. Del Barba ‘stressed to us about his bruise on his leg and how the doctors brushed it off that day,' " according to his sworn statement.
The next day, another sick call form shows that Del Barba’s legs were swollen, with a burning sensation. That night, he was rushed back to the ER, then sent to a private hospital in nearby Columbus.
At that point, though trainees had presented with symptoms related to strep infection, there had been no official screenings or diagnoses. Those didn’t come until several days later.
In total, 61 soldiers were symptomatic and tested positive for strep. As a precaution, another 10,000 trainees and cadre members took antibiotics to treat or prevent further infections.
Despite having access to medical care, the investigation found, the privates did feel as though their cadre did not want them to take time out to address illness or injury.
“At least seven trainees testified in sworn statements that they and/or Pfc. Del Barba were discouraged by drill sergeants to attend sick call and/or were consistently reminded that missing training would subject them to being recycled,” the investigator found.
That tactic ― reminding trainees that if they miss too much of a phase, they’ll have to start over ― is common at basic training, the investigator wrote, to prevent unmotivated soldiers from slacking off. But “it may have discouraged Pfc. Del Barba to speak up concerning the severity of his health.”
There was one drill sergeant, though, who the investigator concluded had acted inappropriately.
“One trainee testified that Drill Sergeant [redacted] ‘insulted Pvt. Del Barba in front of the whole platoon in our bay after he was taken out of the bay permanently’."
In the report’s findings, the investigator concluded that this particular incident couldn’t have happened, because that drill sergeant had moved on to Expert Infantryman Badge training and testing by the time Del Barba had been moved.
However, he might have made comments about the trainee as early as Feb. 7, “before his condition worsened," the investigator wrote.
"Pfc. Del Barba did testify based on what other trainees told him that ‘in formation he was calling me vulgar names behind my back. I know this because my battle buddies would came back to the bay and tell me this,' " according to the report.
In total, the investigator recommended that the brigade commander:
- Review MTAC to ensure trainees always have access to care.
- Review sick call procedures, including urging trainees to notify drill sergeants immediately of medical issues.
- Review and retrain cadre on “proper treatment” of basic trainees.
- Appropriately counsel or discipline the drill sergeant who made comments about Del Barba and the physical therapist who refused to treat the group of soldiers.
All of those actions are currently in progress, Garrett said, as is a clinical quality review launched by Regional Health Command - Atlantic to evaluate the medical care given during the outbreak.
“The commanding general has personally reviewed the investigation," Garrett said of Maj. Gen. Gary Brito. "He has directed the command to make the necessary changes to improve its processes and procedures to ensure the dignity and respect for all trainees who present themselves for medical evaluation and treatment.”
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.