AIDS in the Military: Soldiers Tell of Army Base ‘Leper Colony’
As friends looked on, afraid to say anything, Pvt. John O. Brisbois packed his bags last October and left his barracks with no intention of ever going back. Brisbois said he fled the Army, and the only career he had ever wanted, after a demotion and three months of harassment. The trouble came after a blood test showed that he carries the virus that causes AIDS.
“The Army did everything possible to make me want to leave,” said Brisbois, who, after three months absent without leave, surrendered and tried to kill himself. He was discharged last month. “I feel I don’t have a future anymore. I don’t want to die, but I get so depressed.”
Brisbois, 24, fled a special barracks wing, known on the base as the “HIV hotel” and “the leper colony,” to which he and scores of other soldiers had been transferred.
The barracks wing is the armed forces’ first consolidated housing for HIV-infected troops. It represents an escalation of the military’s battle against acquired immune deficiency syndrome, one that is being waged with weapons such as blood testing, mandatory pledges to avoid risky sex practices and courts-martial of homosexuals--weapons generally not allowed under civilian law.
“I think, gradually, we are seeing a pattern of more restrictions on what people (infected with AIDS virus) can do,” said Kathy Gilbert, head of the Military Law Task Force of the National Lawyers Guild in San Diego.
Military Defends Rules
The military defends these rules as necessary to control the AIDS epidemic. “The reason we have done what we have done,” said Maj. Robert Redfield, of Rockville, Md., chief scientist for the Army’s AIDS research effort, “is that we think it’s good medicine--and it’s medicine that might work in the civilian sector, as well.”
At Redfield’s urging, the Department of Defense began the world’s largest mandatory program of HIV screening in October, 1985. Since then, every recruit has been screened, and those whose tests are positive are barred from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines. About 5 million soldiers and recruits have been tested, and 6,000 of those on active duty have shown up positive.
Those already in the military are allowed to remain until they become too sick to work. They are allowed to continue in their chosen military career fields if they are able, said Susan Hansen of the Department of Defense’s Public Affairs Office in Washington.
Official policy is that individuals “shall not be separated on the basis of their HIV status,” Hansen said. She added that the Pentagon strongly discourages any discrimination.
“The bottom line, in terms of Army policy, is readiness,” said Lt. Col. Greg Rickson of the Office of the Secretary of the Army at the Pentagon. “Is Army readiness affected by having an HIV soldier in the ranks? The commander has to weigh that carefully.”
At Ft. Hood, home of III Corps and the biggest tank and artillery post in the world, then-commanding officer Lt. Gen. Crosbie Saint exercised his prerogative and ordered HIV-positive soldiers to be removed from their units. Saint, who now commands all U.S. troops in Europe, argued that readiness for deployment to Europe in case of war was more important than prohibitions against such segregation, Army officials at Ft. Hood said.
On April 15, 1988, about 50 HIV-positive soldiers were transferred to the fort’s administrative center, which houses a non-combat unit. Most of the transferred men were lodged on the third floor of Building 21006.
“I remember that day clearly. How could I forget it?” said one recently discharged soldier who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Everybody knew that we were the HIVs, you know. There was no confidentiality, none at all. It was like somebody put signs around our necks saying ‘here come the AIDS patients.’ ”
After the transfers, many of the men, like Brisbois, were demoted to lesser jobs. According to Maj. James Small, head of the infectious-diseases department at Ft. Hood, about 50 of 70 men who tested positive have been moved to Building 21006. Some who are married have been allowed to continue living off base.
From the outside, the building looks like any of the other barracks that dot the 340-square-mile base, where 38,000 soldiers live. Inside, security is unusually visible, however. Sentries hastily summon superiors to deflect a reporter’s questions about the special wing on the third floor. Most soldiers refused to acknowledge questions about the wing. Some would talk, but only off the base, and they asked that their names be withheld.
“Everybody might be scared to say anything,” a recently discharged soldier said. “You go through the Article 15 (disciplinary actions) list and see how many are HIVs. They are giving out seven or eight Article 15s a day over there. There’s no morale over there. Every night when I was there, someone was put on extra duty. We never could go out at night.”
Small, the medical officer, strongly denied such allegations, made by eight past or present residents of the wing. “We don’t have quarantine in the Army,” he said. He said efforts are made to keep the soldiers on their career tracks and to give them quality medical care.
Who has AIDS and who doesn’t is the gossip of Building 21006, which also houses soldiers whose HIV tests were negative, one young man in the special wing said. “Let’s put it this way: It’s a driving thought on everybody’s mind,” he said. He added that everybody knows, or suspects, who the HIV-positive men are.
“When you’re in the latrine,” said another, “and you hear somebody laying down a tarp in the shower because they don’t want to get infected, it ain’t easy. Being HIV-positive, that’s enough to deal with. It’s that blanket, that sword that they put over your head every single day, that’s the hard thing to deal with.”
All the soldiers said that morale on the base declined drastically after the housing transfers, and at least two HIV-positive soldiers said they had thought about suicide.
One of them was Brisbois. When he went Absent Without Leave, he fled 250 miles south, to see Robert (Papa Bear) Edwards, director of the San Antonio AIDS Foundation. Brisbois told Edwards about the “quarantine unit” at Ft. Hood.
Edwards and attorney Louis Font of Boston, who specializes in military law, advised Brisbois to surrender at Lackland Air Force Base, where treatment of HIV soldiers is considered relatively humane. “We advised the Army and the Air Force that he was in a delicate frame of mind,” Edwards said.
Arrested and Jailed
Two days later, military police arrived at the Air Force base, put Brisbois in handcuffs and leg irons and drove him to the Ft. Hood stockade. There, he was handed a bottle of delousing shampoo labeled “Poison” in bold print. Brisbois walked back to the showers and drank the shampoo. The guards had Brisbois’ stomach pumped and returned him to the stockade.
Shortly after the incident, Brisbois was given a general discharge from the Army. He is now fighting for medical and other veterans’ benefits.
There are no statistics on how many HIV-infected soldiers have attempted suicide, but Brisbois’ situation is not unique, civilian advocates said. Just outside San Antonio, at Ft. Sam Houston, another soldier told of his emotional disintegration after he learned that he was positive. He proudly showed a 1986 Letter of Commendation and his 1987 Army Achievement Medal for “exceptionally meritorious service.”
“It’s not dealing with the HIV that’s stressful, it’s everything else,” he said. He told how he was shuttled from job to job on base and was unable to get psychological counseling.
No Medical Coverage
Along with the pain of discrimination comes the fear of being discharged and left without medical coverage. Most of the still-active HIV-positive personnel interviewed said they hoped to obtain medical discharges so they would continue to get free treatment. A medical discharge may come when the immune system becomes sharply weakened by the virus.
“Look,” said one soldier, “we all know we’ve got an expensive disease ahead of us. . . . Now, how in hell am I gonna pay for that on my own? Especially when we all know we ain’t going to get jobs when we get out of here.”
The Department of Defense requires that military personnel sign a “safe-sex statement” when they are diagnosed as HIV-positive. It is a pledge not to have sex without using a condom, and to inform all sexual partners of the risk. Ft. Hood goes a step further: According to Small, infected soldiers there must sign a statement promising to abstain from having sex with anyone but a spouse, to inform their spouses of the risk and to use condoms. The term sex is not defined.
Many Are Prosecuted
In all the services, HIV-positive soldiers have been denied medical benefits for a variety of reasons, and many have been prosecuted for sodomy, disobedience and other offenses related to sexual activity.
According to Small, HIV-positive personnel are questioned about their past sexual contacts by a civilian nurse, and their answers are kept secret. But, he said, the files can be subpoenaed by criminal investigators if someone is prosecuted.
“We all know that,” said one soldier who tested positive. “So of course, most people lie. They say Barbara and Diane when they really mean Bob and David.”