Poplarville teen injured in action

Published 6:36 pm Thursday, April 19, 2007

Poplarville native Herbert Youmans initially went to war at age 17, but was pulled from the front lines in Iraq when the U.S. Army learned that it had made a mistake.

Sent back to combat after he turned 18, he suffered a severe leg wound and was sent home where he remains on active duty.

Youmans journey to Iraq started while he was still in high school, when he decided he wanted to join the U.S. Army. He said he decided on the Army because he considered himself a good shot with the various guns he owns.

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First, though, he dropped out of high school to join the Youth Challenge Program run by the Mississippi National Guard at Camp Shelby near Hattiesburg. His mother, Alice Smith, was hesitant at first because she said the program used to be a place for problem children. When she found out the program could help him get his education and that the program conducted at Camp Shelby was no longer for problem children, she agreed. Youmans finished the program and received his high school equivalency diploma a year earlier than if he had continued on in high school. Smith said from that time he was on the fast track to military service. He graduated from the Youth Challenge Program on June 18, 2005, and joined the U.S. Army two days later. On June 29, he went to basic training from which he graduated on Oct. 3, 2005. On Nov. 7, he went to Fort Hood, Texas and was deployed to Baghdad three days later, Smith said.

When the Army recruiter came to their home to enlist Youmans, Smith and Youmans were told he would be stationed in Germany, not Baghdad. Smith warned her son he would more than likely be heading to Baghdad in spite of what the recruiter told him and tried to talk him out of it. When she could not change his mind, she signed the release papers.

Youmans was then transferred to the Fourth Infantry Division from Fort Hood and, by mistake, was sent to Iraq when he was 17. When the Department of Defense discovered the error, he was pulled from the combat zone.

Youmans said he was asked if he lied about his age and said no. He said the DOD was about to send him home when he told investigating officers that he would turn 18 in about 30 days. Youmans said he was then transferred to a base in Kuwait where he remained under close observation for his own safety until he reached his eighteenth birthday.

There have been occasional instances where soldiers who were 17 have entered into combat but it does not happen often, said Army Public Affairs officer Maj. Jim Eldridge.

“It really is a command decision to put them in harm’s way or not. Generally not,” Eldridge said.

After his birthday, Youmans was sent back to Baghdad and again went into combat. One of his unit’s missions involved assisting British forces. During that mission, a grenade was thrown near Youmans and set off an IED, damaging his left leg, Youmans said.

“They say I won’t run no more, but I’ll probably have a little bit of limp for a while,” Youmans said.

When he was taken to a medical facility, he said doctors were concerned because he had only about two units of blood left in his body. In the hospital, Youmans said he was told he may lose his leg, so he lied and said he could still feel his toes so the doctors would try to save his leg. Today Youmans no longer has his natural fibula in his left leg, instead doctors implanted a medical replacement, and he has a large scar where the doctors grafted skin from his upper leg to his lower leg. Soon he will have to undergo another surgery to fix the tendon that was damaged by the device used to keep his leg straight during early medical treatment, Smith said. He is in Texas now awaiting that surgery.

When he returned home to Poplarville after being wounded, Youmans needed a great deal of care from his family with both medical needs and day-to-day activities, Smith said.

Youmans said he is listed on active duty and shows up for work regularly. However, his duties now involve little physical activity.

Eldridge said the army is keeping Youmans on active duty to find out how well his wounds will heal. Once the healing process is complete, the military can then determine what kind of benefits Youmans may receive.

A major problem the family has faced concerns collecting on the Traumatic Injury Protection provision of the Servicemen’s Group Life Insurance. That coverage is supposed to provide service members with compensation for injuries received while on active duty, based on the level of insurance each soldier selects and pays for. Eldridge said the insurance program is under Prudential and has been that way since it was conceived. There are a number of other benefits offered through the military for injured soldiers, such as disability, Eldridge said.

For every 30 days Youmans is off duty, he should be able to collect $25,000, up to $100,000. So far their claim has not been paid, even after numerous phone calls and at least one letter, Smith said.

“He deserves some kind of compensation, even if it’s only $25,000,” Smith said.

There is a hotline to allow soldiers with claims to check their status. The number is 1-800-984-8523 and Youmans said he called it to check on his claim. After calling the number, insurance representatives said they would double check his medical records and get back in touch with him, he said.

Smith said she has had to deal with a great deal of red tape, first with the poor medical treatment she says her son received at Fort Hood and with trying to collect on the insurance to which she believes he is entitled. After wading through all that red tape, Smith is unhappy with the way the Army has been handling her son’s situation.

“It’s like the Army is treating these kids like they are disposable,” Smith said.

Whatever the outcome of his case, Youmans has plans to put his time in service to good use. He said that after he completes his four years of duty, or is released due to his injuries, he plans to go to college on the G.I. bill and major in biological sciences to become a marine biologist.