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The military is trying to learn more about long COVID. Troops who have it worry about their careers

Navy corpsman Maria Potts-Szoke performs a COVID-19 test on Camp Foster in Okinawa, Japan Jan. 24. The test was part of a Marine Corps study that's monitoring the long term health of service members who had earlier tested positive for COVID-19.
Alex Fairchild
/
U.S. Marine Corps
Navy corpsman Maria Potts-Szoke performs a COVID-19 test on Camp Foster in Okinawa, Japan Jan. 24. The test was part of a Marine Corps study that's monitoring the long term health of service members who had earlier tested positive for COVID-19.

Little is known about COVID-19 cases in which symptoms persist for months. Affected service members may have trouble performing their duties or getting treatment.

Kara Gormont is the former Chief of Staff for the Defense Health Agency. She dedicated her career to helping keep service members healthy. But when Gormont developed long COVID in November 2020, she learned first hand that the military at the time had no process to deal with it.

"I truly felt very abandoned by the healthcare system that I had at that time given 28 years of my life to," Gormont said. "And nobody believed me, nobody believed that I was sick, nobody believed that I had COVID."

A year and a half later, she’s still experiencing symptoms, including gastrointestinal problems and brain fog.

"My doctors themselves didn't know what was going on," Gormont said. "I didn't have an established plan of care with them. They didn't necessarily agree what was happening.”

Gormont said she tried to keep working, but couldn’t keep up with the demands of the job. She wanted to take medical leave, but found that difficult. She said she felt judged by her colleagues and was concerned they felt she wasn't tough enough to push through her illness.

She eventually left the military.

"I feel very abandoned by them," she said. "It was traumatic. I'll just say that was a heavy, heavy trauma that I'm going to live with for the rest of my life to be alone and abandoned."

Gormont is among about a half dozen service members who said they worry about the future of their military careers because they have long COVID. Most spoke anonymously out of fear of retaliation. That’s echoed by reporting from the Army Times, in which several soldiers said military doctors didn't take their symptoms seriously.

Estimates vary widely on the number of Americans with long COVID, also known as post-COVID syndrome or long-term COVID. A March report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office put the total between 7.7 million and 23 million people. People who have it, sometimes known as “long haulers,” experience symptoms such as headaches, shortness of breath, cough, and cognitive issues.

An international study concluded that more than 40 percent of people with long COVID had to cut back on their jobs.

Pentagon leaders said troops with long COVID should come forward. The Defense Department said it has resources to help, including physical, emotional, and cognitive treatments.

"A long COVID clinic has been established in San Antonio, where there is a high population of Department of Defense beneficiaries," said Air Force Col. Jennifer Garrison, the Assistant Director of Staff for the Defense Health Agency. "We are also managing many individuals and primary care mental health clinics and other specialties based on symptoms related to COVID."

The military is also continuing to study the issue. Last year, the Naval Medical Research Center began looking at the long term effects of the virus on Marines.

"It seems like the military is actually now coming around and understanding that there is something called long COVID and people suffering so much from their symptoms from that," said Kathy Morgenstern of Survivor Corps, a group for people who've dealt with COVID-19.

The Pentagon has not released statistics on how many troops have long COVID symptoms.

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans.Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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