Military doctors failed him. Now he has stage IV cancer and is fighting for service members’ rights in Congress.

Abbie Bennett
May 01, 2019 - 9:43 am
SFCRichardStayskal

Courtesy of Natalie Khawam.

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After a military hospital repeatedly failed to tell him about a tumor in his lung, Sgt. 1st Class Richard Stayskal would later wake in a civilian doctor’s office to his wife’s tears and the news that he had stage IV terminal lung cancer and little time left.

The husband and father of two had already served his country once as a marine, where he took a bullet to the chest in Iraq, before signing up again to become a Special Forces soldier.

While an enemy bullet couldn’t stop him, medical malpractice from military doctors will. On Tuesday, Stayskal, who has 17 years of service in the military, spent one of his remaining days in Washington, D.C., far from his Fort Bragg home and family, hoping to get through to lawmakers.

Military medical malpractice victims can't sue the government, an upcoming hearing is hoping to change that

For 69 years, a Supreme Court decision has blocked service members and their families from suing the government for any injury or harm -- even death -- during their service. Because of the Feres Doctrine, victims of medical malpractice and their families have no recourse and often go without answers or restitution.

The Feres Doctrine can only be overturned through an act of Congress or the Supreme Court reversing the precedent.

The House Armed Services Committee on Tuesday held a hearing on the Feres Doctrine and gave Stayskal and others the opportunity to share their stories.

“We’re not talking about special treatment,” committee chairwoman Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., said. “We’re talking about giving service members the same rights as their spouses, federal workers and even prisoners. It is disrespectful that for 69 years Congress has refused to give (service members) the same rights."

“Behind the shield of Feres, DoD health providers act with impunity.”

Speier said gauging the full extent of military medical malpractice is difficult, but “ask any service member you meet or their family, and they’ll have a story ... There are few incentives better than the threat of legal action to push an organization to change.”

“This mistaken doctrine is used to strip hundreds of service members and their families of the same rights that the rest of the citizens of our country have when it comes to medical malpractice,” Stayskal told the committee, each of his breaths audible as he spoke.

Stayskal would go on to describe the crucible of medical malpractice he endured over six months -- seeing multiple doctors in the hospital and ERs repeatedly only to be dismissed. “I begged and begged and begged for someone to see me,” he said. All the while, his cancer was spreading.

“This life-changing news that could have been addressed nearly six months earlier while the cancer was still contained to one area of my lung … is inexcusable,” Stayskal said, pausing briefly to collect himself. His cancer has now spread throughout much of his body, he has undergone “countless” procedures, including radiation and chemo and had part of his lung removed.

The failures of military doctors “robbed me of my life and my family without any recourse due to a 1950 Supreme Court case that created the Feres Doctrine,” he said. “My children are the true victims, along with my wife. The hardest thing I have to do is explain to my children … I have no good answer to give them.”

StayskalFamily
Courtesy of Megan Stayskal.

Alexis Witt also testified at the hearing. She is the widow of Staff Sgt. Dean Witt, who was hospitalized for a routine appendectomy at a military hospital, when a nurse administered a lethal dose of fentanyl and incorrectly forced a breathing tube down his esophagus, cutting off his air and causing extensive brain damage.

“She failed to call a Code Blue, used pediatric equipment for resuscitation and misdirected a breathing tube,” Witt said. “Each mistake delayed critical seconds and Dean suffered severe brain damage and remained in a vegetative state until I removed his feeding tube three months later. I later filed a wrongful death suit but my case was dismissed on the grounds of the Feres Doctrine.”

Ranking member Rep. Trent Kelly, R-Mississippi said he would work alongside Speier to have a Feres hearing at the Judiciary Committee in hopes of amending the doctrine. 

"We can keep it from happening to someone else," Kelly said. 

"We're going to pursue this more," Speier said. "This has been a very powerful hearing because you came forward to tell what are truly reprehensible experiences. They deserve to be dealt with ... This has got to be fixed. It's wrong that it has gone on as long as it has without the Congress of the United States putting their big people britches on and doing the hard work to come up with a solution that is going to provide justice." 

Stayskal’s attorney Natalie Khawam told Connecting Vets the goal Tuesday was not only to have lawmakers discuss Feres at the hearing but to introduce legislation to overturn it, adding that they already have legislative partners including Speier, who plans to introduce a bill -- the Richard Stayskal Accountability Act.

A march in honor of Stayskal and other troops and their families to promote the bill is planned for 10:30 a.m. June 12 at Freedom Plaza, ending with a rally on the National Mall.

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Follow Abbie Bennett, @AbbieRBennett.