I served for 18 years in the U.S. Coast Guard, reaching the rank of Lieutenant Commander. When I entered the service at age 19, I never questioned what I had signed up to do: To faithfully serve my country, and to put my life on the line when called upon in order to protect the rights and freedoms of my fellow citizens. I did so with honor and pride. As a second-generation service member, I understood and accepted the risks and sacrifice in service to my country. I did not understand that active-duty service members like myself faced risks, not only on the battlefield, but also when receiving routine medical care in our military hospitals. I had to learn this the hard way.
On March 9, 2014, my beautiful wife, Lt. Rebekah “Moani” Daniel, a nurse in the United States Navy, gave birth to our daughter, Victoria at U.S. Naval Hospital Bremerton. Moani was a third-generation service member; she believed in her country, and in doing her part to protect it. But 15 minutes after giving birth, she began to bleed, and over the next several hours, she bled to death in the hospital. A healthy 33-year-old woman like my wife should not die in childbirth, not in 2014. However, her doctors failed to take basic and timely steps to stop the bleeding and to start blood transfusions until it was too late.
Because of the Navy’s medical malpractice, I became a widower only hours after I became a father. I wanted answers as to what had happened, for myself, my daughter and our family. And I wanted to hold the hospital accountable for this tragic and unnecessary death.
It was only then that I learned that since my wife was an active-duty service member, I had no right to find out those answers or to seek a determination of responsibility for her death. The Feres Doctrine, created in a 1950 U.S. Supreme Court case, bars active-duty service members from suing the government for malpractice, even if the injury is the result of medical care for something as common as childbirth. Civilians have a right to sue; even federal prisoners and wartime detainees have this right. Our brave men and women in uniform are the only class of persons unequivocally denied the benefits of the United States’ waiver of sovereign immunity, when they are the victims of negligent medical care at military hospitals.
The military health care system is now one of the largest medical providers in the world. In my opinion, the providers should be held to the same or a higher standard than their civilian counterparts. We have to look at the military health care system differently. Its function has changed drastically since the Feres Doctrine was established. Reform is a must, and military members and their families deserve better.
In May, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear my wrongful death case though Justice Clarence Thomas issued a dissent: “Such unfortunate repercussions — denial of relief to military personnel and distortions of other areas of law to compensate — will continue to ripple through our jurisprudence as long as the court refuses to consider Feres.”
Fortunately, Congress is now taking action to change this outdated and unfair Feres Doctrine. U.S. Rep. Adam Smith, D-Bellevue, chairman of the House Committee on Armed Services, is spearheading efforts to restore the rights of all service members. The House-passed version of the National Defense Authorization Act contains a provision correcting this injustice and allows service members to bring claims for medical malpractice occurring outside combat zones. The bill has now gone to a House-Senate conference, where members of these committees will decide which provisions make the final cut for passage. I am forever grateful for Chairman Smith’s efforts to fight on behalf of service members to keep this important language in the final bill.
But Chairman Smith can’t do this alone. I am asking for Congress to do the right thing. It is imperative that the provision to correct Feres remains in the final bill that comes out of the House-Senate conference. This is not a partisan issue. We deserve equal protection under the law. The only difference between my wife and other women who have senselessly died in childbirth is that my wife wore a uniform. I don’t want this to happen to any other family. Congress must pass legislation to repeal the Feres Doctrine for active-duty military when injured or killed from medical malpractice. Service members risk their lives every day on the battlefield. We should never be asked to risk our lives when receiving routine health care.