Q & A with Col. Adele Connell

Col. Adele Connell served our country for 34 years in the Army and National Guard.  Connell learned she had breast cancer while still active duty and this meant she had no choice on where the surgery would be done or who would do it; it would be handled in a military hospital.  

Tragically, the military surgeon made an inexcusable mistake by removing the wrong breast, a fact which went unrecognized until Connell’s own daughter pointed it out.  Most people would want to hold the doctor accountable for such reckless behavior, but members of our Armed Services have no such rights. Something known as the Feres doctrine eliminates the legal rights of those like Connell – simply because they serve in the military.  Simply put, military doctors are immune from lawsuits no matter how bad a case of negligence may be.  

I spoke with Connell about her experience and how it affected her. 

Roxanne DeMarco:  Your daughter told doctors of the wrong site surgery.  She is also in the military?

Col. Adele Connell: Melanie serves in the Air Reserve and she was formerly in the Air Guard.  She has volunteered to serve on active duty twice:  once in Haiti and once in Kyrgyzstan. In addition to her, my daughter Rachel is currently active duty Air Guard, my son served in Kuwait and Iraq, and my youngest has made me a very proud grandmom.

RD: Have the irresponsible mistakes made by your doctor shaken your belief in the military?

AC: The Army, Air Force, Navy, Marines and Coast Guard are wonderful organizations.  But, these organizations are made of people, and people make mistakes. 

America was the first nation to have medical troops with soldiers on the battle field.  This is absolute evidence of the military's value for human life.  Many, many military members have died trying to save others on the battlefield.  This is a well-known value we have had and continue to have "We will not leave a fallen comrade behind."  But how does it make any sense if we risk our lives on a battlefield to turn around and lose our rights simply because we receive military medical care? 

RD: Are there repercussions for gross negligence?

 AC: No. For example, my former surgeon at Walter Reed continues to perform surgery and the thing that really upsets me is that there was no formal sanction made against her to my knowledge.  

RD: Would things have been different if you were injured on the battlefield?

AC: The Army apologizes when they kill Soldiers on the battlefield under "friendly fire", but when they kill or maim people in a hospital, it is as if nothing has happened.   No letter is sent.  There is no phone call.  There is no meeting.  There is no correspondence.  Nothing happens in terms of any sort of apology of any kind from the military. At the least, I feel she should have been given a letter of reprimand and I should have been given a copy.  

RD: Do you believe Americans know about Feres?

AC: No.  I don't think 99% of military members know about Feres and when I share that with them, they are amazed and I think that sometimes even after talking to me that some don't believe in it.  We are just so cultivated and nurtured to love America that the military organization itself becomes convoluted with our sense of patriotism.  Some service members might feel they are betraying their patriotic feelings if they wanted to criticize the military.  But the contrary is true; we can make the military better by engaging in healthy criticism.  It is my intention to help the military by making such a criticism of the Feres doctrine.

RD: Is there more you want to say to anyone who’s reading this?

AC: I would like to say that I do not speak for myself here as much as I speak for those who have died and for their family members. If someone does not speak up for them, who will?  I am no example of a spokesperson nor do I intend to be such.  But, I have suffered at the hands of incompetent physicians in a well-known military hospital, Walter Reed, which is a dead and buried structure.  Isn't it time we bury Feres, too?  

The time cannot come soon enough, for me, and for those who seek justice -- American justice.