Marine Reservist questions demobilization over HIV status
Published Thursday, 16-Sep-2010 in issue 1186
San Diego, CA – Marine Reservist Sgt Timothy Holmberg is questioning his recent demobilization by Marine Fighter Attack Training Squadron 101 (VMFAT 101). Holmberg recently volunteered for active duty service to support the Miramar based training squadron in its mission to train pilots for service in Iraq and Afghanistan. The squadron trains pilots to fly the F/A-18 Hornet in combat support roles and Holmberg has over 20 years experience maintaining the aircraft and its systems.
This would have been Holmberg’s second mobilization tour with the squadron, but it was cut short by the unit’s commanding officer. “I reported as ordered for duty and when I arrived at the squadron was told to stop checking in by the unit Sgt Maj. He indicated that the unit CO was not sure that my orders were issued properly given my ‘medical situation’”, said Holmberg, “I was really kind of shocked at their reasons and returned to my reserve unit for guidance”.
Holmberg’s medical situation is that he is HIV positive, a condition that does not preclude him from service with the non-deployable squadron. He was originally diagnosed near the end of his first mobilization tour and continued his service with the squadron until his orders expired. According to Holmberg he was assured by the former commanding officer that the unit wanted to continue his service but needed additional guidance from the legal department as to what the restrictions might be in his case.
As an HIV positive reservist Holmberg’s duty status is determined by an instruction that very clearly spells out how active duty members should be handled, but is less clear when it comes to reservists. This confusion led to delays that ultimately prevented Holmberg from applying for an extension to his previous tour. “I had just found out I was HIV positive and started to try to get a handle on what this would mean for me health wise, but nobody could tell me clearly where I stood with the Marine Corps or whether I could continue to support the squadron in its mission. My plan before all this happened was to work towards promotion and move back to active duty, and I really felt lost when it came to getting answers on where to go from this point.”
Holmberg completed his active duty mobilization and then applied for new orders, a process that took several months. “I went to the unit and got their approval, the maintenance chief even helped me write the justification for my new mobilization. I thought that even if I could not deploy to support the war effort directly, I could participate stateside and perhaps allow another Marine to go forward. Sometimes you just have to make the best out of a bad situation and I figured this was the best way for me to do that.” Holmberg stated.
In May Holmberg was informed that his mobilization request was approved. “I was really happy to be able to get back to my unit and get to work. It meant a great deal to me to be able to continue as a Marine after this and have it really be meaningful.”
Following his brief meeting with the Sgt Maj from 101 Holmberg was in limbo for two weeks while the Marine Corps tried to sort out what to do. “I reported back to my reserve unit and waited for the powers that be to decide what to do. It was so frustrating and the more I learned about what was going on the more upset I got.”
Finally, word came that Holmberg could reapply for mobilization to correct any procedural problems with issuing his current orders and the package would be processed on an expedited basis. It was at this point however, that 101’s new Commanding Officer indicated that he could not use Holmberg to his full capacity due to his medical condition and would not approve his request for mobilization with them.
In the letter of denial the unit cites Holmberg’s medical issues as the basis for their decision, a fact that elicits a strong reaction from Holmberg, “Not only are they wrong on the health issues, but that is really a determination that should be made by my doctor, and my doctor has cleared me. Here is a training squadron that has difficulty getting quality experienced mechanics to want to stay there, and they have someone like me with 20 + years experience and virtually all the qualifications I can get . . . it just does not make sense.”
Unit leaders are given wide discretion when it comes to staffing decisions, a fact that Holmberg readily concedes, “I understand that unit leaders need to have the prerogative to manage their own staffing. But to the extent that this is based on an inaccurate view of my medical condition and a confusing and contradictory policy, I think both the CO and I deserve better policy guidance.”
When asked if he considers this to be a case of discrimination, Holmberg is very clear, “I don’t proceed from that assumption and I don’t think those labels are very productive. But I do think that many people’s view of this disease is through the prism of 1992 when death rates were at their high. The treatment of this has dramatically evolved to the point that it is a manageable medical condition much like Tuberculosis or HPV or herpes. People living with HIV went from having a life expectancy of six to ten years from diagnosis to a life expectancy of 70+ years of age. But the policies and views have not evolved with the treatment. I think that unit leaders and those who contract the disease are struggling to make sense of a deficient order and do what is in the best interests of the Marine Corps and the Marine. We need to destigmatize this and stop treating it as more than what it is.”
Given the unit’s stand it is unlikely that Holmberg will be able to continue his affiliation with them and this may ultimately spell the end for his career. So why is Holmberg persisting? “I think that people in my situation deserve better. They deserve clarity in policy, they deserve good faith dealings with their unit and they deserve the expressed promise of being able to continue their careers to be real. I may not be able to change the ultimate status of my own career at this point, but maybe I can do something to improve the situation for others. If the Marine Corps’ needs and my desire to continue to serve can meet then why should that be a problem for anyone?