"My office is not a war zone," Capt. Katie Blanchard says. "I don't expect to die in my office"

By Harriet Sokmensuer
April 25, 2019 10:51 AM
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Credit: Katie Ann Blanchard/Facebook (2)

Nearly three years after a co-worker doused her with gasoline and lit her on fire at the hospital where they both worked, Army Capt. Katie Blanchard says she isn’t done fighting for justice.

As she continues to recover from first-, second- and third-degree burns all over her body — with the pain making it difficult for her to even hug her sons — Blanchard tells PEOPLE she is facing one of her biggest challenges yet: the United States military.

A 29-year-old mother of three, Blanchard was transformed by the attack she survived in September 2016. An Army nurse since 2013, Blanchard is now fighting to reform a nearly 70-year-old court ruling that stops her from suing the federal government for her injuries and receiving any compensation for their alleged negligence.

She isn’t the only one to challenge the controversial Feres Doctrine, which prevents any member of the military from suing if their injuries were sustained during their service.

The government has argued they already provide no-fault compensation and that reversing Feres would create an unsustainable system, unequally dividing military members who were injured by negligence in combat and those injured while on duty but off the battlefield.

But critics say the government’s payouts are often less than military members could receive in court — where they are barred by a rule that has been too broadly applied.

“My office is not a war zone,” Blanchard says. “I don’t expect to die in my office.”

After surviving her 2016 attack, Blanchard pushed for reforms internally. But she says she was disappointed with the lack of progress, which compounded the alleged neglect that led to her nearly dying at work.

“What makes the military so strong, in a sense, is that we are brothers and sisters and we take care of each other,” she says. “And then to have that organization betray you in such a big way is heartbreaking.”

Challenging the System

It was late in the day, in September 2016, when Clifford Currie came into Blanchard’s office at their Kansas military hospital, sprayed her with gasoline from a plastic bottle, struck a match and set her body aflame.

His assault didn’t end there: Currie also attacked her with a razor blade and scissors and used his foot to hold her down by the throat.

“I told you this would happen!” Blanchard, then partially covered in her own blood, screamed as colleagues tried to save her. Currie was restrained at the scene.

It was the worst possible outcome to a volatile situation, and one Blanchard saw coming and tried to prevent.

She says that months before the attack she voiced concern about Currie, a civilian and her subordinate, after he had argued with her. He subsequently grew more aggressive, even once cornering her in her office to yell at her. Blanchard asked to have someone accompany her when she worked with Currie going forward, and she submitted a memo detailing his troubling behavior.

But, she says, no action was taken.

(Hospital and military officials did not respond to PEOPLE’s request for comment about Blanchard’s case or about Currie.)

Speaking with PEOPLE in 2017, Blanchard vividly recalled the moments after Currie set her on fire.

“I just [thought] ‘You guys did this, you knew this was going to happen and you allowed this to happen,’ ” she said. “I felt utterly let down.”

About a year after he attacked her, Currie was convicted of assault with the intent to commit murder and was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Blanchard refused to retreat from her life. She told PEOPLE on the same day that Currie was sentenced, “I just don’t think you know how strong of a person you are until you’re put in that position, and then you see yourself and you’re like, ‘I can keep doing this.’ ”

She became an advocate against workplace violence, calling for easier electronic reporting across the military, increased resources such as threat assessment teams and personal education. Her goal at the time, she says, was to “ensure the change is a top down approach — a priority, not a check-the-box answer.”

She tells PEOPLE she wanted to create change from within but was met with a frustratingly slow response.

More troubling to her were the responses she received from some other service members, she says, who labeled her a “terrorist” and “an inside threat” for agitating for reform.

“It’s almost like getting re-victimized,” she says.

In the fall, she decided she would take the military to court — or so she thought. As she prepared to file a personal injury claim, Blanchard learned of the Feres Doctrine, referring to a precedent set by a Supreme Court decision in 1950.

Essentially, the court found, military members injured on the job could not sue the government for the negligence of other military personnel. Blanchard’s dismay at the little-known rule, and how it restrained her, mirrored that of many others.

As detailed in a lengthy 2018 piece by the military news website Task & Purpose, the Feres Doctrine has been widely criticized but never successfully challenged.

In one case, an Army sergeant said the staff at his military hospital failed to spot a mass on on his lungs that turned out to be cancer.

“The more I learned about the Feres Doctrine — that it bars me from justice — it just didn’t make sense to me,” Army Sgt. 1st Class Richard Stayskal told Task & Purpose. “Why am I not allowed to have this one right?”

In another case, a pregnant Navy nurse died after giving birth at a military hospital, according to Task & Purpose. Though her husband’s wrongful death suit was tossed, an appellate judge wrote, in part, “If ever there were a case to carve out an exception to the Feres [D]octrine, this is it. But only the Supreme Court has the tools to do so.”

So far the Supreme Court has declined to do just that, though the late Justice Antonin Scalia once derided the rule as “wrongly decided,” according to Task & Purpose.

Blanchard, like the others, feels Feres is outdated and offers “blanket immunity” to the government even in cases of medical malpractice, sexual assault and workplace violence.

Shortly after learning about Feres, Blanchard contacted attorney Natalie Khawam, who is working with active-duty members and veterans to push to change the rule. This group includes Sgt. Stayskal.

“We should all be treated equally,” Khawam tells PEOPLE. “Theres no reason and no excuse for our military to have substandard care, especially when they’re out there fighting for our freedom and our lives.”

In lieu of a court reversal, the other option would be a law from Congress. But previous efforts have stalled, according to Task & Purpose.

“Given all the other things that competes for the attention of our legislatures in a way it’s not surprising,” Eugene Fidell, who teaches military law at Yale, tells PEOPLE. “What’s surprising is these cases come up and they’re truly heartrending cases.”

Blanchard and other Feres critics such as Sgt. Stayskal are supporting a new bill, drafted in January, to amend the doctrine to allow them to sue the government.

In a statement to PEOPLE, a spokesperson in the Office of the Secretary of Defense said the repeal of Feres would destroy the no-fault compensation system.

“No medical system is perfect,” the spokesperson said, noting that all cases of compensation from inadequate health care are subject to peer review.

Echoing previous arguments, the spokesperson said that undoing Feres would create “defensive medicine practices” in military health care — apparently out of fear of possible suit. As Task & Purpose notes, there is also concern that such suits “might invite second-guessing of command decisions in civilian courts.”

Fidell framed it another way.

“One purpose of malpractice litigation is to light a fire under medical providers to do the best possible job, or to do a job that meets reasonable professional standards, and that’s a major incentive in American society,” he told Task & Purpose last year. “But the military medical system is outside that where the patient is an active-duty member.”

The Department of Defense did not return calls for further comment.

Blanchard in the hospital after the attack
| Credit: Courtesy Katie Ann Blanchard

Road to Recovery

Blanchard’s advocacy against Feres is a political issue, extending far beyond her.

But back home, she is still healing. The 2016 attack forced her into a new body and a “new normal.” Everyday tasks are painful: housework, but also interacting with sons Arthur, 3, Finn, 4, and 8-year-old Canaan, who have to remember to hug her gently.

“This breaks my heart when I can’t be present and loving with my own children because of the injuries I sustained,” she says. “It hurts me to know I can’t be the mother I used to be due to my limitations and frequent wounds.”

Much of Blanchard’s life revolves around her medical care, including weekly doctor visits and monthly surgeries, light therapies and follow-up appointments.

But that is hardly her whole life. She is earning a graduate degree in nursing education at the University of Washington and raising her three sons in Seattle while her husband, Troy, is deployed in Korea.

One way she unwinds is on her family’s farm, home to chickens, Icelandic sheep, geese, a donkey and her rescue horse, Baron, whom she’s had since college.

She remains on active duty, assigned to the Wounded Warrior Battalion of Madigan Army Medical Center at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. As part of her education, she also volunteers at a civilian hospital for 32 hours a week and gets to work directly with patients — the one thing she loves most about being a nurse.

Her daily life is never free of pain, but that has only made her more determined.

“People have to join together and be like, ‘Okay, this is not right. We have to do something about it,’ ” she says.

Rep. Markwayne Mullin, of Oklahoma, is one of several lawmakers working on the bill supported by Blanchard and the others.

Next week Sgt. Stayskal will testify before the House’s Committee on Armed Services to bring awareness to their cause. That same day, the new bill will be introduced in Congress.

On June 12, the Feres reformists plan to march through Washington, D.C.

“It takes somebody bold to say, ‘Hey I have nothing to lose and honestly I don’t really have anything to gain except making sure I take care of my brothers and sisters in arms,’ ” Mullins tells PEOPLE.

Even if the bill does not pass, Blanchard plans on continuing her education and using her voice.

“It’s been two years already,” she says. “We’re going to keep, as military and civilians, supporting each other and trying to work together to do what’s right.”