The Blog

A Soldier's Death

In December 2001, Justin Haase died during boot camp at Parris Island. The Feres Doctrine is shielding the military from his family's lawsuit.

11:00 PM, Dec 18, 2003 • By RACHEL DICARLO
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CHRISTMAS MORNING two years ago, no one at my parents' house was allowed to use the telephone. We were waiting for a rare call from my brother from the Marine Corps Recruit Depot at Parris Island. When we heard from him, Michael regaled us with his experiences at boot camp--how hard the drill instructors pushed them, how awful food in the mess hall was, and how he couldn't wait for graduation day. At the end of the call, he lowered his voice, and said, "I don't want to worry you guys, but a recruit in my platoon just died of meningitis. I'm fine, but I just wanted to let you all know."

On Wednesday, citing the Feres Doctrine, a U.S. District judge threw out the lawsuit the recruit's family filed over his questionable death.

The Feres Doctrine, named after Rudolph Feres, who died in a 1947 barracks fire, bars families of service members from suing the military, even for noncombat related deaths. Feres's widow tried to sue the Army, but in 1950 the Supreme Court ruled that making the military liable would undermine the 1946 Federal Tort Claims Act, which protects the government in combat-related deaths. Over the years the law, because of the Feres decision, has been broadly read so as to protect the military from almost every lawsuit involving the armed forces.

"It's a sad case," Judge Bernard Friedman said during the hearing. "It screams, it screams . . . it's not fair."

JUSTIN HAASE was 18 years old when he arrived at Parris Island in October 2001. The internal military inquiry into his death found lapses in procedure, bad decisions, and missteps--from his first days on the island when the Marines failed to give him a substitute for the penicillin shot new recruits get (Haase was allergic), to the moment he was pronounced brain dead without a family member present.

According to detailed reports in the Detroit Free Press, at 6:30 a.m. on December 22, 2001, Haase's platoon marched one mile to an obstacle training course, worked on the parallel bars, and climbed the ropes. Haase vomited. Afterward, according to the military investigation, "He complained to those around him that he had a headache." On the next obstacle course he began to cry.

A drill instructor took him to the field medics who failed to check his breathing, temperature, or pulse. And though they had a two-way radio unit, the medics also decided not to call a doctor or superior officer. Instead, they had Haase rest in a heated van for two hours, drinking water, while his platoon finished training.

For the following seven hours, Haase obeyed drill instructors' orders to stay in bed. When he woke up that evening, he could barely keep his eyes open and was disoriented and delirious. (The infection had started to attack his spinal cord, and seeped into his blood, records later showed.)

The platoon's senior drill instructor called 9-1-1 and reported that Justin had taken a "spill" on the obstacle course. When he arrived at Beaufort Naval Hospital he was moaning and his left eye stayed fixed, while his right one wandered--all symptoms consistent with bacterial meningitis.

The first doctor that worked on him initially focused on treating a head injury, but suspected a bacterial infection after noticing the throbbing veins in Justin's forehead. He needed antibiotics and his spinal fluid checked immediately.

He turned Haase over to another doctor, Lt. Cmdr. Lloyd Weddington, who ordered a spinal tap to extract fluid for a meningitis test. The spinal fluid of healthy people is clear. Haase's had the color and consistency of skim milk.

Doctors transferred Haase to Beaufort Memorial Hospital for a brain scan, where he spent the next few hours thrashing in bed. Standard care for meningitis patients includes five procedures to limit swelling of the brain, including propping the patient's head up at a 30 degree angle. None of those methods were employed in caring for Haase.

HAASE WAS then returned to the Beaufort Naval Hospital. By 5:30 a.m. both of his pupils were fixed and dilated and he had stopped breathing. The nursing staff pumped air into his lungs and put him on a respirator as doctors prepared to fly him to Savannah Memorial Hospital in Georgia. Around 7:00 a.m., his family received a phone call telling them their son was sick. By the next afternoon he was dead from bacterial meningitis.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's website, early diagnosis and treatment are critical to surviving bacterial meningitis. And the Marines' own inquiry concludes that Haase should have had medical attention much earlier than he received it. "If he had been a civilian in a nonmilitary hospital this would be the perfect malpractice case," LeRoy Wulfmeier, the Haase family attorney, says. "It's a no-brainer."