Fort Benning basic trainee battles life-threatening, flesh-eating bacteria

Local News

A 21-year-old California National Guard recruit at Fort Benning for basic training has been hospitalized for six weeks after contracting the flesh-eating disease known as necrotizing fasciitis from a common bacteria group known as A Streptococcus

Since first being diagnosed, the soldier, Dez Del Barba of Stockton, Calif., has undergone 14 surgeries in three hospitals. Del Barba’s left leg was amputated and large amounts of tissue and muscle have been surgically removed from his body in attempts to stop the rapid spread of the disease and to keep him alive.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, necrotizing fasciitis  — NECK-re-tie-zing FASH-e-i-tis —  is a rare bacterial infection that spreads quickly in the body and can cause death. Accurate diagnosis, rapid antibiotic treatment, and prompt surgery are important to stopping this infection.     

Public health experts believe group A Stepococcus are the most common cause of necrotizing fasciitis, according to the CDC.   

In exclusive telephone interviews with News 3 over the last week. Del Barba’s family says that a lack of medical treatment at Fort Benning led to their son’s condition after he was diagnosed with A Streptococcus on Friday, Feb. 8.

“All they had to do was look at his lab results,” said Del Barba’s father, Mark Del Barba. “It was hand-written in is medical records: ‘Positive for culture. Call AM Monday.’”    

A Fort Benning spokesman declined multiple times to confirm Del Barba’s condition or discuss the circumstances that led to it. On Monday, Ben Garrett, Chief of Public Affairs for the Maneuver Center of Excellence at Fort Benning, referred questions concerning Del Barba to the U.S. Army Medical Command at the Pentagon.

Tuesday morning, Garrett released the following email statement, which read in part:

“Our mission is to train soldiers and develop leaders in a very high risk and close quarters environment,” it read. “The safety and care of our soldiers and personnel at Fort Benning is our utmost concern. Sometimes the environment or high-risk training results in illness, injury, or sadly, even death.”

Before Tuesday’s statement, the first and only time Fort Benning talked about the A strep was in a statement and interview by Garrett on Feb. 21. At that time,  Garrett confirmed that there had been four cases of A Streptococcus with basic training soldiers.

Fort Benning officials have explained that they are limited in what they can say because of HIPAA and federal regulations. At no time, have Fort Benning officials made any connection between the A Streptococcus cases on post and Del Barba’s case or any case of necrotizing fasciitis.

Del Barba is currently being treated at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio. He has had 14 surgeries and his left leg had to be amputated above the knee, according to his parents. The doctors are hoping they can save his right leg, his parents said. 

His parents, Mark and Kamini Del Barba, have been with their son for six weeks in three cities as he continues to fight for his life against the aggressive disease. Mark is a correctional peace officer in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and Kamini works for the Stockton Unified School District. 

They have been keeping a daily account of their son’s medical plight on Facebook since Feb. 24.

The Del Barbas have obtained their son’s medical records for the period of his basic training. They say those records outline a series of mistakes in the way their son was treated. News 3 has not seen the records, but Del Barba’s parents have revealed details from those records during multiple phone conversations with News 3. Mark Del Barba said his son had given him permission to discuss the records. 

Del Barba is a college student at Sonoma State University in California, who took a leave of absence before his final semester there to attend basic training at Fort Benning. After basic training, Del Barba was planning to complete his degree in business management and attend Officer Candidate School, his parents say.   

The Del Barba family has a history of military service. His mother, Kamini, served 23 years in the California Army National Guard.   

When Del Barba left California on Jan. 7 he was healthy, his parents said.  

Timeline of Del Barba’s medical condition

The issues started at the beginning of his fifth week of basic training, according to his parents and medical records in their possession.

The Del Barbas’ timeline details their son’s treatment.

  • On Feb. 7, Del Barba went to sick call with a sore throat, according to the medical records. Two tests for strep were performed on Del Barba. The test with instant results came back negative. The 24-hour throat culture test was sent off to get results. He was given ibuprofen and throat lozenges. 
  • On Feb. 8, a Friday, he went back to sick call for leg pain and was seen by a physical therapist, his parents said. 

“Dez told us the drill sergeant continuously deterred him from asking for medical treatment for his ongoing symptoms.” Mark Del Barba said. “He was told he could be recycled and have to repeat the course.”  

  • Later that Friday results from the 24-hour throat culture for strep came back positive. The medical records show those results were received at 12:26 p.m. on Feb. 8. A hand-written note was put in Del Barba’s medical records that read: ‘Positive for culture. Call Monday AM.’” 
  • On Sunday, Feb. 10, Del Barba was taken to the hospital because the leg pain and his throat pain had intensified. He was seen by a doctor, according to the medical records. He was released back to his unit and given ibuprofen and more throat lozenges. 

“Nobody looked at the lab results nor notified him of his positive culture results,” Mark Del Barba said. “All they had to do was give him a shot of penicillin.”   

  • On Feb. 11 his condition worsened, Del Barba was taken to the emergency room at Martin Army Hospital and was immediately moved from Fort Benning to the Piedmont Columbus Regional midtown campus for treatment. He was responsive and in severe pain, his father said.

“The doctors at Piedmont told us when he came in all he could say was, ‘I need to get back to training or I am going to be recycled,'” Mark Del Barba said. “He was worried about being recycled.”

  • At 4:45 a.m. California time, Del Barba’s parents were notified of their son’s condition. That was 7:45 a.m. in Georgia. They made immediate plans to travel that day from California to Georgia.  
  • At Piedmont Columbus Regional, Del Barba was diagnosed with necrotizing fasciitis, the rare flesh-eating disease. He had his first surgery at Piedmont Columbus Regional to remove massive amounts of tissue and muscle from his left leg.    
  • On Feb. 12. Del Barba had a second major surgery and his parents were in Columbus at that time. Again, massive amounts of tissue and muscle were removed from the infected areas of his body. He was listed in grave condition.  

“Doctors told us that day he had a 50-50 chance to live,” said Mark Del Barba.

  • On Feb. 13 his condition got no better. He was flown by air ambulance from Columbus to the University of Alabama-Birmingham Hospital Burn Center. A day later, Del Barba had his left leg amputated above the knee.  

“If they did not amputate his leg, he would not be here,” Mark Del Barba said.  

  • On Feb. 16, Del Barba was flown to Fort Sam Houston, where he is being treated at Brooke Army Medical Center, the Army’s premier medical institution.   

More than six weeks after Del Barba first sought treatment from Fort Benning medical personnel for a sore throat, he remains in intensive care at Brooke Army Medical Center and had his most recent surgery, a skin-graft operation on Monday.  

Mark Del Barba says his son’s medical treatment at Fort Benning was botched. He says the medical care his son received after leaving Fort Benning is the reason he survived.  

“We are so grateful for the excellent care my son received from Piedmont ICU,” he said. “The medical team saved my son’s life. And the continued care he received from UAB was absolutely amazing. The care now at BAMC is nothing but superb. All the medical providers who are treating Dez at BAMC are his guardian angels. We just hope his future medical care will continue for the rest of his life.”  

The Army’s response

When asked specifically about Del Barba on Feb. 28, Fort Benning spokesman Ben Garrett responded via email, “I have no additional information to provide to our original statement.”   

A day after being told News 3 was preparing to publish an account of Del Barba’s plight, Fort Benning issued a more extensive statement on Tuesday.

“Once the issue related to strep was identified, the leadership at Fort Benning immediately worked with the Army Public Health Center in response to health and readiness concerns among our trainee and cadre population,” Garrett’s statement read in part. “In an effort to ensure the health and readiness of the force, Fort Benning spent $1.7 million on antibiotics to treat and prevent further cases in a population of nearly 10,000 soldiers within the Initial Entry Training environment. The initial results of Fort Benning’s efforts have been positive, and all new trainees arriving to the installation are receiving preventative medicine to eradicate future strep cases.”

Fort Benning officials have not confirmed Del Barba’s condition or acknowledged he took ill while in basic training. That is because of federal regulations, Garrett’s statement read.

“We also take medical privacy seriously and are unable to provide any individual’s medical treatment or condition due to HIPAA and Privacy Laws,” the statement concluded.

The Feb. 21 Fort Benning statement confirmed four cases of A Streptococcus among basic trainees.

The first reports of Strep came on Feb. 13, according to information provided at the time from Fort Benning Public Affairs.    

On Monday, Garrett referred any additional medical questions to the U.S. Army Medical Command at the Pentagon. News 3 has contacted Stephanie Abdullah, a public affairs specialist with the Army 
Office of the Surgeon General Nadja West.

That office was still gathering information Tuesday at 1 p.m. EDT.

Another basic training soldier has died, but Garrett said Fort Benning officials have not connected it to the strep cases. In Garrett’s statement on Tuesday, he said the soldier died in January.

“The cause of his death is currently under investigation and attributing his death to strep would be premature,” Garrett said in the most recent statement.  

Outpouring of support and the long road to recovery

Del Barba’s plight is well documented on Facebook. It has caught the attention of the Oakland A’s baseball team. A video was posted with several of the A’s, who are currently in spring training in Arizona, saying they knew of Del Barba’s condition and were wishing him a speedy recovery.    

One of the pictures on the Facebook page shows Del Barba in an Oakland ball cap.   

The Los Angeles Lakers, his favorite NBA team, has sent an autographed basketball. 

The journey thus far has been difficult for the Del Barbas and there are still many more surgeries to come.

“As my son lays in the ICU bed in pain and fear, as he is preparing for his next surgery or fighting a fever, his basic training class prepares to graduate on the 22nd of March,” Mark Del Barba said.  

That bothers the father.  

“We should not be here at the hospital,” he said. “We should be getting ready to watch my son reach another goal. It’s the most heartbreaking feeling a parent can feel. My son’s life has been forever altered and his future as a soldier for the United States Army has been destroyed by pure negligence.”  

Prayers are what the Del Barbas have left in this situation.  

“Every night we pray for my son’s health and recovery,” he said. “And, we also pray for all his battle buddies from his unit.” 

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