PINEHURST, N.C. — As his condition takes “a turn for the worse,” and with time running out, a U.S. Army Special Forces soldier from Pinehurst, N.C., who is fighting stage 4 terminal lung cancer, wants his legacy is a bill that would hold bad military doctors accountable. He hopes to see it pass in Congress before he dies.
“What’s the better thing to do?” asked Green Beret Sfc. Richard Stayskal. “Continue to let it just impact and destroy people’s lives?”
Stayskal is fighting for his life and a new law.
“It’s been rough and it’s getting harder. I’m as well as I could be for where I’m at with it but I’m still stage four.”
Every other week Stayskal travels for cancer treatment to take part in a clinical trial. Doctors hope the treatment he is getting will give him more time.
“Between going through treatments, I got a family, a wife and kids, work, going to D.C.,” Stayskal said with tears in his eyes. “Sorry. It’s challenging.”
Stayskal was awarded a Purple Heart after he was shot in the chest in Iraq in 2004. Fifteen years later, he is now one of hundreds of reported service members who are victims of military medical malpractice – not from being treated on the battlefield in a war zone but rather at home in the U.S.
“ISIS couldn’t kill him but our own healthcare system is,” said his attorney Natalie Khawam.
In 2017, doctors at Womack Army Medical Center at Fort Bragg misdiagnosed his lung cancer twice. Stayskal was told he had pneumonia, records show, despite internal concerns listing a “possible mediastinal mass” and an “abnormality” that “needed” attention.
The lack of treatment early on, before a civilian doctor detected his cancer six months later, gave his tumor time to spread.
He is now stage 4 terminal.
It’s been one year since FOX 46 first reported on Stayskal’s case. Since then, our investigation and his story has gotten results. He has met with President Trump, Vice President Pence, and dozens of lawmakers in an effort to overturn a nearly 70-year-old Supreme Court ruling known as the Feres Doctrine. That ruling prevents active duty soldiers from suing the government. In Stayskal’s case, for medical malpractice.
If Stayskal had been a civilian, a veteran, or even a prisoner, he could sue. Because he was active duty at the time, he can’t.
Stayskal says the Feres Doctrine shields bad doctors from accountability.
“It’s taken a toll on people’s lives,” he said.
On Capitol Hill, there is bipartisan support for a bill named after Staysakl – the Sfc. Richard Stayskal Military Medical Accountability Act of 2019 – that would give soldiers the right to sue for malpractice, not related to combat, at military clinics and hospitals.
“At a time when Rich should be able to spend his remaining days with those he loves,” Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA), who filed the bill in the House, said in September, “he has answered the call to fight.”
“Fighting for this is, originally…maybe it was just for myself,” said Stayskal. “You know, I wanted to make sure that that doctor is held accountable for his actions, for his lack of actions. And then as time went on, and I met more and more people and heard how many people were affected by the Feres Doctrine, it just became more apparent that it was something I had to do.”
These days, Skaysal is “always anxious” to get back home. He splits his time between cancer treatment in Florida, traveling to Washington to meet with lawmakers, and spending time with his family in North Carolina.
He says he is using the precious time he has left to fight for justice for his family and fellow soldiers.
“What do you want your legacy to be?,” asked FOX 46 investigative reporter Matt Grant.
“You know, if I want something to remember me by, I was a good father, a good husband,” he said. “And, really, I’ve always tried to do the right thing at the right time even if it’s the hard way to do it.”
“Have you thought about what would happen if this bill doesn’t pass?,” asked Grant.
“Right now, I hope and believe that it’s going to,” said Stayskal. “So, I haven’t really thought about it too much. To me, there’s not much of another option.”
The Department of Defense opposes the bill, arguing it would upend military hierarchy, and saying its current compensation system is sufficient.
Khawam says the Feres Doctrine was originally designed to protect medics who worked in combat but has been applied to protect everything from medical malpractice to sexual assaults to negligence.
The bill has stalled in the Senate due to opposition from Sen. Lindsey Graham, who chairs the Judiciary Committee. Graham has expressed concern the bill would open the government up to lawsuits unrelated to malpractice.
Stayskal says the bill is about being “treated the same” as everyone else when it comes to healthcare.
At his home, when asked if he planned to keep fighting for the bill as long as he can, Stayskal responded: “That’s the plan.”
“I don’t know any other way I guess,” he added.