A Pentagon spokesperson said the Army is investigating an allegation by a gay soldier that a colonel in charge of an Army unit based in Arlington, Va., improperly directed subordinates to compile and circulate a list of soldiers who had tested positive for HIV.
Sgt. Joseph Wittig told the Washington Blade that his name was among those on the list circulated over the past two years at the Army Physical Disability Agency located in an office building in the Crystal City section of Arlington less than a mile from the Pentagon.
“I had just found out before I got here,” he said, noting that he learned he was HIV positive shortly before he was transferred from Ft. Collins, Colo., to a new assignment at the Physical Disability Agency office, known as the PDA, in Crystal City in 2013.
“And they spread it all over the world as if it was something like, oh, he’s got a cold,” Wittig said. “They were doing, oh, he’s got HIV. Well, you’re not supposed to do that. It’s a major privacy violation.”
Wittig, 34, has been on active duty with the Army for just over 12 years. He has served two tours in Iraq and a tour in Haiti as part of the U.S. mission to provide humanitarian aid following a massive earthquake there.
He said he was diagnosed as HIV positive in 2012 and was still adjusting to and grappling with the diagnosis when he was transferred the following year to Crystal City.
“We are looking into this matter and will implement the appropriate action(s),” Pentagon spokesperson Paul Prince told the Blade in a Nov. 9 email. “Army leadership views all allegations of violations of soldiers’ privacy as a very serious matter,” he said.
Prince said the Army is “prohibited by law to confirm the names, units or duty assignments of soldiers who may be Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) positive.”
He added: “Ultimately, protecting personal privacy information (PPI) for all soldiers is among our top priorities. The Army ensures this protection by training all personnel to executive Army and DOD directed PPI measures, and holding those accountable who violate the policies.”
Another Pentagon spokesperson, Maj. Ben Sakrisson, told the Blade in an email that military health care providers and military commanders and their designees are exempt from privacy rules related to service members’ personal health information under certain circumstances.
“Further dissemination of Personal Health Information (including but not limited to HIV status) is limited to those with a ‘need to know’ that information in the performance of their duties,” he said.
Wittig said that up until the time he contacted the Blade, the Army had not responded to a formal complaint he filed in July 2014 with the Army Inspector General’s Office at Fort Myer in Arlington about what he considers an illegal breach of his HIV status and privacy rights.
His complaint identifies Army Col. Carl Johnson, who served as director of the Army Physical Disability Agency from July 2012 to October 2014, as the official who allegedly directed staff members to compile the list of HIV-positive soldiers assigned to the agency.
Johnson didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. His LinkedIn page says he has retired from the Army and currently serves as vice president of the Training Management Division at ASM Research, a Fairfax, Va.-based data management consulting company that does defense contracting work.
Wittig said he was pleasantly surprised on Nov. 6, when Col. Todd Garlic, the current director of the Physical Disability Agency, visited him at Walter Reed Medical Center in Bethesda, where Wittig is now assigned, and apologized for what happened in connection with the release of his HIV status.
“Now they are doing a formal investigation because they found that list,” Wittig said he was told. “They have now encrypted it and put it into a secure file.”
Wittig said he was transferred from the Crystal City office to Walter Reed in Bethesda so he can undergo psychiatric treatment and support on a daily basis for the severe anxiety and stress he has experienced since his HIV status was leaked during his previous assignment at the Physical Disability Agency.
He said it was especially devastating to him that his HIV status would be disclosed at an agency charged with helping members of the Army transition from active duty to civilian life while they face serious illnesses or war-related injuries.
Although his former co-workers at the agency didn’t outwardly talk about his HIV status he said their actions and attitude toward him and others whose HIV-positive status was leaked through the list clearly sensed they were being ostracized and stigmatized.
On one occasion at an office potluck dinner, Wittig said, he noticed that people working at a food table immediately removed the serving spoons that he used to lift food from the table to his plate.
“People with HIV are made to feel so low,” he said. “No one should feel they are garbage. It really gets to you. You don’t do that to people.”