Catonsville soldier died of pulmonary embolism

An Army sergeant and Catonsville native died of a treatable ailment in Iraq last month while awaiting medical care and after multiple doctor visits, his family said.

Sgt. John F. Burner III, 32, died Sept. 16 in Iskandariya, Iraq, of a pulmonary embolism, his father said Tuesday.

A pulmonary embolism occurs when a blood vessel in the lungs is blocked, usually by a clot. Patients are often given blood thinners, but if the clots are very large, they receive clot-busting drugs or undergo surgery.

"We just found it kind of shocking that it was something that was treatable," said his father, John Burner Jr.

The sergeant was a satellite systems team chief assigned to the 63rd Signal Battalion (Expeditionary), 35th Signal Brigade in Fort Gordon, Ga. He deployed on Aug. 21, taking a 14-hour flight to Kuwait. He remained there while the rest of his battalion continued on.

The sergeant started showing symptoms about two weeks before he shipped into Iraq on Sept. 10, Burner said.

"One of his comrades said he was hacking up a lung," he said. "That's when he sought aid — he got off the plane and went right to the medical tent."

The Army sergeant sought medical attention, but was told that there was no lab to perform blood tests, his father said. Soon after his death, Burner's father asked why he wasn't taken to a base with full medical facilities, as is done with those with traumatic injuries.

"They're not in a state of war right now. … It would have been very easy to diagnose this if he had just had a chance," he said.

Giora Netzer, a pulmonary and critical care physician and assistant professor of medicine and epidemiology at the University of Maryland, said that immobility, such as during air travel, is a risk factor for blood clot formation. "It appears that the longer the flight, the greater the risk," Netzer said.

About three-quarters of people who have a pulmonary embolism have shortness of breath, and many will have chest pain or a cough. But one third have no symptoms at all, he said. Clots may cause pain or swelling if they form in the legs, but if they form in one of the larger vessels in the upper leg or pelvis, it may not hurt. And these clots can be the largest, he said.

But in most emergency rooms, if a patient has shortness of breath and recently traveled, doctors would look for an embolism, he said. "It would certainly raise the suspicion of most clinicians, knowing it's a known risk factor," Netzer said.

John Burner III, who played football for Catonsville High School, leaves behind a wife and two daughters.

"We just don't want this to happen to another family, where a soldier is overlooked for care just because it's a non-combat problem," said John Burner Jr. "If there's a procedure that needs to be changed or a person that needs to be replaced, that needs to be done."

The official investigation is continuing, Burner said, and a full report probably won't be completed until next year.

An Army medical spokeswoman did not have an update as of Tuesday evening. Military officials have said in the past that they do not comment on specific cases.

The seargent was given additional medication during his initial visit, the father said, but was told to report to duty. He returned to the medical tent the next day and was confined to quarters.

He had an appointment scheduled for Sept. 17 but went back on Sept. 15, when his symptoms became worse. "At that point he was blacking out and couldn't walk hardly," Burner said.

The younger Burner was told to return for the original appointment. "And of course, on the 16th, he died," the father said.

Burner's widow, Verena, said she believes the outcome would have been different had he been in the United States. She said she owes it to her husband and daughters to keep asking questions to prevent similar sorrow from striking other families.

"I'm sure my husband wasn't the first one and he won't be the last one," she said.

Burner's funeral is planned for Wednesday at Arlington National Cemetery. Members of the Westboro Baptist Church have announced on their website plans to protest the ceremony.

The father said he plans to bring them coffee and doughnuts.

"The basic rights that they're exercising is what our soldiers are dying for," the father said. "If that's what you really believe in, then you live in the right country to express that."

Burner's youngest brother, Carl, is home on leave for the funeral. He will return to Balad, Iraq, on Saturday.

"If I had my way, his service would be over. We've paid the price," Burner said. "His ticket should be punched. He's done."

But he understands his son made a commitment. "He's in the Army and doing a duty, what he signed up for."

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