Detrick Whistleblower Still Puts Veterans First

Fort Detrick (U.S. Army photo)
Fort Detrick (U.S. Army photo)

After spending his career caring for members of the military, veterans and their families, Richard Muckerman finally had to quit the job he loved.

He was still passionate about caring for his patients, but once he became a whistleblower, he said administrators at the Veterans Affairs clinic at Fort Detrick tried to force him out.

Muckerman, 60, lives in New Market. He has been a nurse for decades, through his service in uniform in the Air Force and the Army, his work at the Department of Veterans Affairs, and now at Meritus Medical Center.

"I felt -- very strongly -- a bond in helping my peers, brothers in arms, and I still do," he said.

He retired from the Army and went to work for the surgical intensive care unit at the Department of Veterans Affairs' Baltimore hospital in 2007. When an opportunity opened up closer to home at the Fort Detrick Veterans Affairs Community-Based Outpatient Clinic in 2011, he took it.

Muckerman was hired as one of six registered nurses working at the clinic. He occasionally helped Dr. Richard Hill, a primary care physician who was working at the Fort Detrick clinic toward the end of Hill's two-decade career with the VA.

"In my decades in medicine, he was clearly the most capable and efficient [registered nurse] I've ever worked with," Hill said of Muckerman.

But Hill, Muckerman and other whistleblowers had little faith in the clinic's management. They say they coped with staffing deficiencies, a lack of trust between physicians and administrators, and cleanliness issues.

When they told others about their concerns, administrators responded with threats, Hill said.

Hill left the clinic in 2014 after deciding he would rather lose his job than continue to work with VA managers.

Muckerman contacted U.S. Reps. John Delaney and Chris Van Hollen about his concerns, though they were only able to forward them to federal investigators, who had already been notified about problems at the Fort Detrick clinic.

Though he was losing confidence in the VA system, Muckerman nevertheless sought help at the Martinsburg VA hospital for his own post-traumatic stress associated with his service in Iraq.

Treating prisoners

Before he joined the armed services, Muckerman was a mechanic from Missouri who wanted to travel the world.

"Even as a mechanic, I think I always wanted to help people," he said.

Muckerman followed his brother-in-law into the Air Force and became a flight medic, helping keep squadrons healthy. He then joined the Army as a commissioned officer. His last assignment was in the Middle East in 2006.

At Camp Bucca, a U.S. military-run prison in Iraq, the desert heat was deadly -- 130 degrees in the day.

At that camp, prisoners were known to kill each other with thin strips of metal pulled from their air-conditioning units.

Muckerman was the assistant chief nurse at the U.S. Army hospital that treated those prisoners. There were just 40 beds for a detained population of 15,000.

Prisoners came to the U.S. military-run prison in Iraq with blast injuries, possibly from failed attempts at creating explosive devices. Riots broke out within the walls; some turned deadly.

"I would see bullet wounds, I would see fractures," he said. Some of his patients -- both detainees and the soldiers guarding them -- had shrapnel embedded in their bodies.

Others were soldiers who had lost limbs to explosive devices, but his primary mission, Muckerman said, was caring for detainees. He helped surgeons in the operating room on night shifts at the hospital.

At the end of his time in Iraq, in 2007, Muckerman retired from the Army and came home to New Market.

Treating veterans

Working at the Fort Detrick clinic had its own challenges. Once Muckerman started speaking out about his concerns there, he was labeled a troublemaker.

"I felt like I was more hunted there than I ever was in Iraq," Muckerman said. "I knew they were after me, so I had to watch everything I wrote and everything I did."

He received a letter of termination earlier this year. After hiring a lawyer to negotiate with the VA, he finally left the clinic in September.

By that point, each of the issues raised by Hill, Muckerman and others had been investigated and confirmed by federal inspectors.

Muckerman said the clinic still helps veterans despite the concerns he had about the management.

"I think they give excellent care. They do the best with what they have," he said.

Now, at Meritus Medical Center, he occasionally helps veterans as a patient advocate and care manager. He ensures that patients are getting care that is covered by their insurance, with the patient's best interests in mind.

"I'm very dedicated to what I do," he said, "and I love what I do."

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