WAUSAU, Wis. - Joan McDonald believes her son was a casualty of the war in Iraq, but the Army says that while he did suffer a severe head wound in a bomb blast, the cause of his death is undetermined, keeping him off the casualty list.
She and her family are demanding more answers in the death of Sgt. James W. McDonald.
"I don't want it to be an undetermined cause of death," said Joan McDonald. "That is ridiculous."
McDonald, 26, was injured in a roadside bomb blast in Iraq last May. He was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment based at Fort Hood, Texas. After treatment in Germany, McDonald returned to Fort Hood and underwent extensive facial surgery in August.
His body was found in his barracks apartment Nov. 12, a Monday. He was last seen alive the previous Friday.
The Army ruled out suicide and accidental factors, but an autopsy could not determine the exact cause of death, in part because of the decomposition of the body, said Col. Diane Battaglia, a base spokeswoman.
As a result, McDonald's death is considered noncombat-related, with the caveat that medical experts couldn't rule out that "traumatic brain injury" may have been a factor, Battaglia said.
Joan McDonald, of Neenah, has no doubts about her son's death.
"If my son was not at the war, he would not be dead, plain and simple," she said. "He was a strong healthy boy. ... Don't tell me it was unrelated to the war. I will never accept that."
Tom Wilborn, a spokesman for Disabled American Veterans in Washington, said the question of whether McDonald was a war casualty is the first that he was aware of from the Iraq war.
"But it happened a lot during Vietnam," he said. "There's a long history where guys would be wounded in the jungle and they might live long enough to come home. And then they would pass away and were not counted as a combat casualty."
According to an Army study in 2007, 1.4 million people in the U.S. suffer traumatic brain injuries each year. Of those, 50,000 die, 235,000 are hospitalized and 1.1 million are evaluated, treated at a hospital emergency department and released.
A Government Accountability Office study found that of soldiers who required a medical evacuation for battle-related injuries in Iraq or Afghanistan, 30 percent suffered a traumatic brain injury. But it was unknown how many soldiers suffered more mild forms of brain injury.
The family has asked Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., for help. McDonald has a copy of a March 11 letter Feingold sent to Maj. Gen. Galen Jakman at the Pentagon outlining her concerns.
McDonald said her son was a strapping 6-foot-3, 200-pound soldier who served two tours of duty in Iraq and loved the military.
"He was having a problem sleeping since he came back from the war. I don't think it had anything to do with sleep apnea. I think it had to do with bombs," she said. He also had seen a doctor because of severe nose bleeds but was told the symptoms were not that unusual, given his August surgery, she said.
Before he died, McDonald had worked on the base at a weapons room and the post office, she said. He had planned to leave the Army in January to pursue a career in firefighting.
She said she recently ran across a T-shirt that said he helped build a memorial wall at Fort Hood to honor its soldiers killed in Iraq.
"I want his name on that wall," she said. "We don't know what else to do. I have one brother who is saying 'Does it matter. To you, he is a casualty of war. To everyone that knew him, he is a casualty of war.' I am like, well, it kinda does matter."