Taking on the Marines

updated 12/15/2003 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/15/2003 AT 01:00 AM EST

Justin Haase was partway through an obstacle course at Marine boot camp on Parris Island, S.C., on Dec. 22,2001, when he complained of a headache and began vomiting. Two field medics had him rest in a van for two hours—but, contrary to procedure, didn't take his vital signs or call a superior officer—and then told him to go to bed back in quarters. Only 8½ hours later, when Haase became disoriented and unresponsive, did a drill instructor finally call for an ambulance to Beaufort Naval Hospital. Though his symptoms were consistent with a serious infection, he lay untreated for more than two hours before a doctor performed a routine test that showed he was suffering from a raging case of bacterial meningitis. That was when Dr. Lloyd Weddington administered penicillin—to which Haase, 18, was allergic.

By the next afternoon the recruit was dead. According the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, early diagnosis and treatment are crucial to the chances of surviving meningitis. Even the Marines' own inquiry later concluded that Haase's symptoms should have signaled the need for medical attention long before he got it. "If he was civilian and he went into a nonmilitary hospital," says his family's attorney, LeRoy Wulfmeier, "he would have one hell of a lawsuit."

Yet Haase's family may have no case at all. Though the Marine investigation found that a series of blunders and miscues contributed to his death, a 53-year-old legal doctrine bars service members and their families from suing the military and individual soldiers, even for noncombat injuries. Undeterred, Haase's mother, Renee, and stepfather, Scott Thurlow, have filed a civil lawsuit due to be heard Dec. 17 in U.S. District Court in Detroit, hoping to eventually overturn the ruling known as the Feres Doctrine.

The Thurlows face an uphill battle: Hundreds of others have challenged the law only to lose in court. (The doctrine is named after Lt. Rudolph Feres, who died in a 1947 barracks fire. After his family tried to sue the Army, the Supreme Court ruled that holding the military liable would undermine its authority.) "The military is not a democracy," explains Duke Law School professor Scott Silliman, a defender of the doctrine. "To allow lawsuits by service members could work against the disciplinary system."

But many think the doctrine should go, among them Supreme Court Justice Anthony Scalia, who wrote in 1987 that the doctrine "heartily deserved the widespread universal criticism it has received." Says Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University: "It has the perverse effect of making service members cheaper to injure and kill." With some in Congress, including Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank, calling for a change in the law, the Thurlows are hopeful. Seeking unspecified damages, the Thurlows—a homemaker and auto plant jobsetter from Chesterfield Township, Mich.—say it's not about money. "When there are no consequences, people don't care," says Scott, 40. "When there's accountability, people are a little more careful."

Haase's death did lead the corps to change policies at Parris Island: Field medics are now required to consult with more highly trained medical staff, drill instructors may no longer prescribe bed rest, and recruits must wear shoe tags to indicate their allergies. Though no criminal negligence was found, says Parris Island spokesman Major Ken White, "the Marine Corps has held itself accountable...and made changes we thought could mitigate these kinds of things from happening."

The military inquiry into Haase's death found lapses in procedure at Parris Island almost from the moment he arrived in good health on Oct. 29,2001. Though most new recruits receive penicillin to ward off infection, Haase received no substitute as he should have. Within four days he was diagnosed with an upper-respiratory infection. Weeks later he was ailing so badly that aches and congestion were costing him sleep. "I was up all night going crazy, then today my SDI [senior drill instructor] said he'd give me medicine cause he saw me crying, but he never did," Justin wrote his girlfriend Nicole Schlaack, now 19, that Dec. 8. When he phoned home a week later, "he sounded horrible," recalls Renee, 41, who told him to see a doctor.

The next word she received of her son came Dec. 23—a full 24 hours after Haase had fallen ill. "It's very grim," said Justin's doctor. "You need to get here." Brain-dead, Haase was on a respirator when Renee and daughter Danielle, 21, arrived. "We kissed him," says Renee, "and held his hand and told him how much we loved him." Now, she says, she simply wants justice for her son: "The way they took care of Justin was very irresponsible. We're doing this so nobody else will be treated this way."

Thomas Fields-Meyer. Jeff Truesdell in Panama City, Fla., and Lauren Comander in Chicago

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