Hundreds of service members waiting for answers years after filing malpractice claims against military

Congress cleared the way for compensation, but critics say process lacks transparency and efficiency
An attorney says none of her military clients have yet been paid for DOD malpractice claims. Reporter: Joce Sterman, Photojournalist: Scotty Smith.
Published: Oct. 10, 2022 at 12:44 PM CDT
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Fort Walton Beach, Florida (InvestigateTV) - When Chrystal Stuckey enlisted in the Air Force, she knew there was a chance she’d lay down her life for her country. But she never imagined the battle that would kill her would be against doctors also serving in uniform.

“I’m not going to sugarcoat it. They killed her,” her husband, Deverris Stuckey said. “They had plenty of opportunities to fix her or to try and fix her. And they didn’t. They just kept pushing down the road.”

And perhaps what’s worse, is the unwillingness of the military to pay for its medical mistakes and missed diagnoses.

The Stuckeys are among hundreds of service member families who are seeking compensation for malpractice errors made by military doctors, only to face bureaucracy, delays, and a process shrouded in secrecy.

For decades, Supreme Court precedent effectively banned members of the military from suing the Department of Defense.

In 2019, Congress passed a law that cleared the way for military malpractice claims. Yet few have won their cases.

Chrystal Stuckey’s case – like hundreds of others - remains in limbo.

Air Force Master Sergeant Chrystal Stuckey is pictured in her uniform in the months leading up...
Air Force Master Sergeant Chrystal Stuckey is pictured in her uniform in the months leading up to her death(Stuckey Family)

Chrystal Stuckey passed away in 2017 from hydrocephalus, a condition in which fluid collects on the brain, according to records filed by Stuckey’s attorney with the military and provided to InvestigateTV.

Her death was not a sudden event. Rather, her family claims it was an avoidable tragedy that started with a headache in 2015. The unexplained issue sent Chrystal repeatedly in and out of the emergency room and doctors’ offices on military bases, seeking answers. She sought help, her husband said, as often as two times a week.

“She started going to what we call a PCM, or primary care manager, the doctor, to figure out what was going on. They kept saying, ‘Oh well, it’s just migraines’. So, they prescribed medicine to her, and she was taking the medicine. It was doing just absolutely nothing,” Stuckey said.

Chrystal carried on for months, fighting through crippling headaches, pain, and exhaustion.

Despite the pain, when Deverris got orders to report to South Korea, he said she single-handedly cared for their four children while continuing to report for work at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida.

“I know she didn’t want to die. She had a family. She had kids. She had a husband,” Stuckey said. “She did everything she could do. She asked for help. She begged for help. Nothing happened.”

Retired Air Force veteran Deverris Stuckey and his four children work on homework at their...
Retired Air Force veteran Deverris Stuckey and his four children work on homework at their Florida home(Joce Sterman, InvestigateTV)

“I don’t understand why they allowed this to happen”

The family claims Chrystal was misdiagnosed with everything from vertigo to problems with her diet over the next 13 months. Records show she finally got an MRI in January 2017, more than a year after her first trip to the doctor.

According to the family’s records, the Stuckeys claim doctors knew at that point that she had hydrocephalus but didn’t reveal the diagnosis to the family until April of 2017, after Chrystal’s repeated follow-up calls.

Two months later, in June of 2017, with fluid swelling around her spinal cord, Chrystal finally got an appointment with a specialist at an Alabama military base.

“They’re on their way to Birmingham. And when they got to Georgiana, that’s when she woke up and said, ‘Hey mom, you know, I feel like I’m dying. As a matter of fact, I know I’m dying’. She took off her jewelry and everything, gave it to her mom, and said, ‘Can you please get this to my husband? Tell him I’m sorry. I fought as long as I could, but I can’t take it anymore. Like I’m dying. I’m fading out,’” Stuckey said.

She died riding to the appointment with her mother, as her two oldest children sat in the backseat. Chrystal, who had served in the military for nearly two decades, was 38 years old.

In February 2020, Deverris Stuckey filed a malpractice and wrongful death claim against the Air Force and Department of Defense, citing negligence and inattention by the military doctors Chrystal saw over and over at Eglin Air Force Base. The claim said, “Mrs. Stuckey’s death was avoidable if she would have received adequate medical care and treatment.”

A representative for Eglin Air Force base said in a statement, “It is Department of the Air Force policy not to comment on ongoing investigations.”

Change in law cleared the way for hundreds of military malpractice claims

Stuckey’s claim is one of hundreds that InvestigateTV learned have been filed against the military since a change in law nearly three years ago.

A court decision known as the Feres Doctrine had essentially banned active-duty service members from filing malpractice lawsuits against the Defense Department, even when they were harmed by military doctors.

In 2019, Congress passed the Richard Stayskal Act as part of the annual defense spending plan known as the National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA. The legislation was named after a member of the U.S. Special Forces, a Green Beret whose terminal lung cancer was missed by military doctors.

Stayskal, heard on video audibly wheezing, testified before a House committee in April of that year, telling lawmakers what happened to him was inexcusable.

“The failure of the military doctor’s gross negligence and failure to detect and treat my cancer when it was first noted on the CT scan done on me in January 2017 is the mistake that allowed the aggressive tumor to double in size and rob me and my family of my life,” Stayskal testified.

The previous ban on malpractice claims created a disparity between service members and civilians, who could pursue lawsuits for botched care, said Stayskal’s attorney, Natalie Khawam.

“The soldiers are out there putting on a uniform every day to protect our country and our rights, our liberties, and they don’t have the same rights and liberties. They have less,” she told InvestigateTV. “How is it that a soldier that defends our country, that’s willing to take a bullet for our country, has less rights than anyone else?”

Since the change in law, Khawam’s firm has been one of the biggest filers of medical complaints against the military.

She said they have filed more than 100 claims against various branches of service. But she said none of them have been paid out since the process began nearly three years ago, saying, “Justice delayed is justice denied.”

Attorney Natalie Khawam's firm is one of the largest filers of malpractice claims against the...
Attorney Natalie Khawam's firm is one of the largest filers of malpractice claims against the military(Scotty Smith, InvestigateTV)

Investigation reveals more than 100 malpractice claims already denied by DoD

The new claims process, however, is shrouded in secrecy.

The Secretary of Defense and the secretaries of the Army, Air Force, and Navy either ignored or denied repeated requests for on-camera interviews from InvestigateTV. The Defense Department wouldn’t respond to questions about the claims process, delays, or transparency.

InvestigateTV filed federal Freedom of Information Act requests to each military branch and the Defense Department seeking hundreds of military claims. Yet the stonewalling continues.

Despite repeated follow-up emails – and letters from InvestigateTV attorneys – the military has ignored the FOIA requests. They have not produced a single document to date.

InvestigateTV also asked each branch for the number of claims that have been received and their outcomes.

The Navy and Marines did not respond to repeated requests. The Air Force said it has received 118 claims as of September, denying 27 of them and settling four. I

n a statement, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said, “The Department of the Air Force is focused on providing the best medical care possible to our Airmen, Guardians, and their families. It is our policy to immediately investigate any incident to prevent recurrence and improve the safety and quality of healthcare for our beneficiaries. Offering the appropriate care touches every aspect of a servicemember’s career from accession to separation, and oftentimes continues after leaving active service. We are deeply invested in ensuring our teammates, and their families, receive the services and support they require throughout their medical treatment, recovery process, and beyond.”

The Army said it had 177 claims in its files in September, saying that it had denied more than 100 and settled only six. In a statement, a spokesman told InvestigateTV, “Like the other military services, the Army is working diligently to resolve these claims since these claims.”

Claims process is getting a close eye from a key member of Congress

But the numbers provided don’t reflect the full picture.

Rep. Jackie Speier, who has championed the legislation to allow for military malpractice claims, said that she is aware of 439 cases filed as of late September, with millions in payments already allocated for settlements that have been agreed upon.

The military should be acting with far more transparency and processing claims quicker, the California Democrat told InvestigateTV.

In recent weeks, Speier has introduced additional legislation to expand the original law.

Defense Department rules created as part of the Stayskal Act did not allow for claims filed by service members injured by military doctors in the clinics, operating rooms, and ICUs aboard ships. Speier’s new legislation aims to fix that and would make cases of alleged malpractice in those settings applicable for claims.

“If we’re pursuing legislative intent, it’s going to be very important that we also include the hospital settings on ships. Otherwise, why would anyone want to become a sailor?” she questioned. “Again, we take one step forward, two steps back and then we keep doing it until we make some progress.”

California Congresswoman Jackie Speier talks about malpractice claims filed against the...
California Congresswoman Jackie Speier talks about malpractice claims filed against the military in her office on Capitol Hill(Scotty Smith, InvestigateTV)

Speier said that out of the 439 total claims she’s aware of, there are currently 34 cases undergoing appeal and another 234 claims still awaiting decisions. She said many of the denials she’s aware of are attributed to claims that did not meet the qualifications of the legislation.

Attorney Khawam said that she has numerous clients waiting to hear from the military, including the Stuckey family and Richard Stayskal, the man the law was named after.

“I’ve had them here in my office,” Speier said. “Young, talented people who were volunteering to join the military, who because of the care they received are no longer even physically able to be in the military. So, it breaks my heart.”

“And the fact that they haven’t gotten their payments yet is, you know, very disturbing to me,” she said. “So, we’ve got to keep our eyes on the administration of this program. We’ve got to make sure they’re held accountable.”

Critics say malpractice claims process lacks transparency

Right now, the military is the sole arbiter that decides if it should pay for its own mistakes.

Critics argue it’s all happening behind closed doors.

According to the 18 pages of rules laid out by the Defense Department and formally approved in late September, claimants are unable to see any of the materials that shape the decision or obtain any information about the experts that ultimately help the military decide the case.

“They won’t provide the expert’s name, what school he went to, which zoo he trained at. Nothing. I wouldn’t know if this expert was someone who worked at McDonald’s,” Khawam said. “So, they’re playing judge and jury at the same time on their own, which is a complete conflict.”

Deverris Stuckey also is frustrated with the process.

“With this military thing, with those rules, it’s shrouded in darkness. I read that somewhere. I can’t remember where. But somebody wrote on it and said that it’s shrouded in darkness,” he said. “And I agree. 100%.”

This acknowledgement letter dated April 2020 was received by the Stuckey family, confirming...
This acknowledgement letter dated April 2020 was received by the Stuckey family, confirming their malpractice claim against the Defense Department(Stuckey Family)

Stuckey said he’s been in the dark since the Air Force acknowledged his claim in a letter dated April 2020.

More than two years later he’s still a struggling single parent, caring for children ages 17, 15, 8, and 7.

He retired after Chrystal’s death, with his sense of duty shifting from his country to his children. Helping them cope with an unimaginable loss is now his priority.

Retired Air Force veteran Deverris Stuckey stands in his Florida home, holding a picture of...
Retired Air Force veteran Deverris Stuckey stands in his Florida home, holding a picture of his late wife, Master Sergeant Chrystal Stuckey(Joce Sterman, InvestigateTV)

Between helping with homework and attempting his own personal healing, Deverris says waiting for a decision has been excruciating. He knows it won’t bring back his wife or return his children’s mother. But he said it may bring closure to a family whose matriarch made the ultimate sacrifice.

“They don’t know the pain that the kids wake up with every day. They don’t know. Yes, you move on, but their pain is still there. They don’t know the pain that I wake up with every day. The guilt, everything I feel,” Stuckey said. “I try to move on every day, and I do. But it’s still hard to focus when you know this stuff is lingering out there.”