CHARLOTTE, N.C. - It was called “landmark legislation” and a “Christmas miracle.” Sgt. 1st Class Richard Stayskal calls it a relief.
“It’s a huge relief to know there’s better accountability,” said Stayskal in a Facetime phone interview from the Capitol. “That service members are getting what they deserve. I’m hoping everybody’s going to share the joy us right now and the happiness that’s deserved for all the ones that feel left behind or forgotten about over the years.”
The Senate overwhelmingly passed the National Defense Authorization Act by a vote of 86-8 on Tuesday. Tucked inside is a provision, sparked by Stayskal, that will allow service members who have been victims of negligent medical care to finally be allowed to hold the government accountable. The measure allocates $400 million to the Dept. of Defense to investigate and pay out military medical malpractice claims internally. It will provide a measure of justice to service members and their families that has previously been denied.
“Everyone involved in this conference, including the Department of Defense,” said Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), “recognized the importance of fixing the medical malpractice issue in a common sense fashion.”
Fourteen months after the North Carolina Purple Heart Green Beret first shared his story with FOX 46 – how doctors at Womack Army Medical Center misdiagnosed his lung cancer as pneumonia in 2017, delaying treatment that could have prolonged his life - his story is getting results and now changing federal law.
“It’s just an amazing feeling overall right now. I don’t have the words to describe it,” said Stayskal, who has stage 4 lung cancer, and came back to Washington to watch the historic vote inside the Senate chamber. “It’s a victory for everybody. For all the service members across the board.”
On social media, Stayskal and his attorney, Natalie Khawam, wrote: “We did the impossible!”
“Never say never,” said Khawam, who took on Stayskal’s case, and the family of Jordan Way, even though the Feres Doctrine prevents soldiers from suing the government for medical malpractice.
Khawam never let that deter her seeking justice for military families who have been wronged.
“There’s always an opportunity to make things better,” she said. “Especially for our military.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) had opposed the original Feres Doctrine legislation and almost stopped it in the Senate. The bill, named after Stayskal, was introduced in the House by Rep. Jackie Speier (D-C.A.) and co-sponsored by Rep. Richard Hudson (R-Concord). Graham said he didn’t want to “create liability” “when pilots fly new planes.” Ex-military attorneys said Graham’s answer didn’t accurately reflect what was in the bill. Graham told FOX 46 in October he would be willing to meet with Stayskal but warned before their phone call: “I’m not gonna change my mind.”
On Tuesday, Graham voted for the NDAA, which included the military medical malpractice compromise.
His office did not respond when FOX 46 notified them last week we were traveling to Capitol Hill and requested an interview or statement. FOX 46 asked again on Tuesday what his thoughts were on the compromise agreement that will allow the government to pay out medical malpractice claims.
“He voted in support of it, yes,” said Graham’s spokesperson Kevin Bishop, without elaborating on the senator’s position.
Stayskal praised the bipartisan support for his fight. He and Khawam credit a yearlong series of FOX 46 investigations for getting results.
“Matt, I always say, this couldn’t have been done without you,” said Khawam. “You brought awareness to the community. You brought awareness across the country. We would never have had the amount of support without your constant journalism.”
“Without your support we couldn’t have done that,” echoed Stayskal. “It’s been such a key part of what we’ve been doing since day one and I just can’t say thank you enough for everything.”
“It’s just an amazing feeling today,” he added. “It’s a great victory.”
The NDAA now goes to President Donald Trump to sign into law, which is expected to happen in the coming days.
This story was reported from Charlotte, N.C.