Case Sheds Light On Military Law

Carmelo Rodriguez
CBS
Today the name Carmelo Rodriguez marks a modest grave in upstate New York, where his family still visits, and still mourns.

But soon - as early as Tuesday - that name will be introduced on the floor of the U.S. Congress, CBS News correspondent Byron Pitts reports.

"The bill is called the Carmelo Rodriguez Military Medical Malpractice and Injustice Act," said Rep. Maurice Hinchley.

CBS News reported exclusively on the life and death of Marine Sgt. Carmelo Rodriguez last January. While he was serving as a platoon leader in Iraq, his family says a military doctor there "misdiagnosed" the sergeant's skin cancer, calling it instead "a wart."

A condition first diagnosed in 1997 during Rodriguez's original medical exam from his enlistment.

But doctors did not inform him or recommend any follow-up.

Untreated for years, the melanoma worsened. By the time Pitts met Sgt. Rodgriquez, the once-fit, gung-ho Marine had lost nearly 100 pounds. As we were preparing to interview him … he died.

His death sparked a rush of e-mails, letters and calls to CBS News and members of Congress. Due to what's known as the Feres Doctrine, Rodriguez's family, including his 7-year-old son, cannot sue the military for medical practice.

Unlike every other U.S. citizen, the Feres Doctrine forbids active military from suing the federal government for malpractice. One argument: it would disrupt military order and discipline.

"No Congress has ever changed it," said Maj. Gen. John D. Altenburg. "They've had 50-some years to have opportunity to change the federal tort claims act and to effect the Feres Doctrine, and they chose not to do that and I think for good reason."

"I think that there is growing political will," said Rep. Maurice Hinchey of New York.

"Growing political will" Hinchey says, because of an increasingly unpopular war. Leading this member of Congress to make a bold claim.

"They were increasingly desperate to keep people - particularly people like Carmelo Rodriguez, who was a clear leader - they were forced to overlook this, to just look away from it to just keep him there, use him as best they could," Hinchey said.

"Congressman, those are awfully damning allegations that the military overlooked this man's medical conditions because they needed bodies to fight the war in Iraq," Pitts said.

"Yes, that's correct," Hinchey said.


Read Byron Pitts' original report on Carmelo Rodriguez.
Find out more about how Pitts reported this story at Couric & Co.
voice heard on this issue.
What will it mean to this family, on the floor of the U.S. Congress, when a bill is introduced with your brother's name attached to it?

"That is what we want," his sister Elizabeth said.

"That would be amazing. I said to my sister that everyone is going to know my brother's name," his sister Yvette said.

In one of his last e-mails, Rodriquez wrote, "The Marine Corps. had been like my family." His goal in telling his story? Continued service to the country and Corps he loved: In duty and in death.