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Pentagon Won't Allow Immigrant Doctors to Help Army Fight Coronavirus

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A program with the Pentagon allowed immigrant physicians that have served in the military before to register to help the Army fight the coronavirus. After dozens registered, they were stuck taking out trash and filing paperwork.

The program was created to help the Army combat the coronavirus as many health-care workers are contracting the virus and forced to quarantine, leaving them with more cases and not enough physicians.

The Pentagon's top health official, Thomas McCaffery, warned on Tuesday that the military health system is facing a surge in demand as more than 250 service members have been confirmed as having the disease.

However, the immigrant physicians registered for the program had to go through long background checks before working with the service members. A process that they say, is slowing their chance to serve at such a crucial moment.

One physician that registered for the program is a doctor from India with a specialty in respiratory illnesses, who enlisted in the Army in 2015, said he has treated at least 40 patients with the coronavirus in a New York City hospital before registering for the program and being stuck doing "chores" for the Pentagon.

"I love to help people," he said. "But these hurdles are unnecessary. I'm wasting years of my medical experience."

Like other physicians, he would like to keep identifying details anonymous for fear of retribution from the U.S. government.

These physicians were part of the military before through an immigrant recruitment program, which traded fast-tracked citizenship for language and medical skills in the military.

In the last decade, more than 10,000 skilled immigrants entered the military through this recruitment program, mostly for the ability to translate. However, the program closed in 2017 due to security concerns and heightened background checks that stopped the process.

One physician came to the United States a decade ago, and recently enlisted in the military to help serve his medical skills in uniform. After the process of background checks were dragged out for years, he was denied do to having foreign family members even though he was a naturalized citizen.

"It was not my choice to be born in a different country," he said. "I don't know what I need to do to prove my allegiance."

An internal medicine specialist in Louisiana has faced similar hurdles. He enlisted in 2016 and was naturalized, but he was also recently denied because he often speaks to his foreign-born father. His current duty in reserve while waiting has involved teaching classes and occasional trash duty.

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