Sgt. James Alford: They Finally Did the Right Thing
In the early 1970s, I was the Assistant Weapons Officer on a Fleet Ballistic Missile Submarine. I had come up through the ranks, so I had a bit more experience than the average lieutenant junior grade, and this may be what made the difference. My first class sonar technician was a top-rated petty officer headed for chief, and bigger and better things. He was popular with both the officers and crew.
During the latter part of a two-month patrol, this petty officer began to sleep late and behave erratically on and off watch. He seemed to be bothered by something pretty major. I counseled him, and we kept an eye on him. When we returned to port, his behavior worsened, and counseling was not working.
When my boss wanted to write him up for Captain’s Mast, I went to the corpsman and asked him to set up an appointment with the physician on the submarine tender alongside. He did. Immediately following the examination by the physician and his interview of me and several of our shipmates, the petty officer was med-evaced to the United States where he was diagnosed with a brain tumor.
Following surgery, this fine petty officer continued his career, and eventually retired as a proud master chief petty officer, having even served a stint as Chief of the Boat, the senior enlisted position on a U.S. Submarine.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work out this way.
Staff Sgt. James Alford received a Bronze Star for heroism in Afghanistan as a member of the 5th Special Forces Group. Apparently while he was in-country, he contracted either a form of Mad Cow Disease, or else a rare form of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, which is a fatal brain disease similar to Mad Cow. Symptoms began to manifest themselves after his January arrival in Kuwait in preparation for the attack on Iraq. Apparently Alford knew something was wrong, and he masked his symptoms, concealing from his superiors that something seemed to be happening with him.
At first, it was simply forgetfulness, and Staff Sgt. Alford was counseled and told to carry around a notepad to keep track of orders and assigned tasks – a not unusual way many military people keep track of things. But it didn’t stop there. By March, Alford was seriously neglecting the very things that had made him a hero only months before. He was cited for dereliction of duty, larceny and lying to superiors. And to add insult to injury, he lost his gas mask.
When Alford went back to Kuwait for more serious counseling, the Army physician who examined him concluded that he was faking it. That apparently was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Finally in April, Lt. Col. Christopher Conner of the 2nd Battalion, 5th Special Forces Group Headquarters in Kuwait , ordered Alford back to Fort Campbell to be court-martialed with the words: “Your conduct is inconsistent with the integrity and professionalism required by a Special Forces soldier.”
Alford was busted to Sergeant, but – fortunately – before the Army could give him some kind of less-than-honorable discharge, doctors finally discovered that was really wrong with him. The Army cannot take credit for this, however. Alford’s parents were alerted to an apparent problem by a neighbor, and they drove the 600- mile distance to discover their once heroic son in what appeared to be the final stages of dementia. They rushed him to the emergency room, and then through several doctors, where the correct diagnosis finally was made.
At first there was a certain amount of foot-shuffling and finger-pointing, especially by the Special Forces Group’s command staff. Then Bill O’Reilly presented the case to the nation on his Fox News Channel program, “The O’Reilly Factor.” Things happened quickly after that. On Monday evening, Dec. 8, Alford’s father, retired Army Command Sgt. Maj. John Alford, reported to O’Reilly that Monday afternoon, his family was visited by eight senior Special Forces members, who apologized. Alford has had his full rank restored, with all back pay, all medical benefits, and all of the honor due a true American hero.
I suspect there was a significant amount of pressure from above, but I am certain that the men who visited the retired command sergeant major and his wife were there because they wanted to be there. When it is all said and done, the Army Special Forces takes care of their own. This was a case of terrible medical misdiagnosis, and a significant example of the poorest judgment. But in the end, it has worked out as it should.
Staff Sgt. Alford has his honor reinstated, and even if these unfortunate events had not happened, he still would be oblivious to them, because he will die soon, a victim of a rare, always fatal, incurable disorder that may or may not have been caused by something he ingested in Afghanistan. It wasn’t his fault, nor the Special Forces’, nor the Army’s.
Civilian specialists have even come to the defense of the Army doctors who missed the original diagnosis. According to these experts, diagnosis of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease usually takes eight or more months – just like it did here. The staff sergeant got a tough break, but his superiors made up for it, and the command sergeant major himself is satisfied that they finally did the right thing.
Robert G. Williscroft is DefenseWatch Navy Editor