Kansas National Guard Staff Sgt. Derron Lindsey hustled around the nose of a churning UH-60 Black Hawk to help guide a group of Australian dignitaries out of the aircraft in Iraq.
It was a routine task he’d executed hundreds of times without incident. But the events of Feb. 27, 2007, would transform Lindsey’s life. The emotional and physical harm flight surgeon Mark Wisner inflicted upon him that day reflected the perversion that would lead to Wisner’s conviction for molesting patients at a Kansas veterans’ hospital.
Lindsey’s personal torment began when he slipped off the helicopter’s tire and fell backward onto an asphalt lot. An armor plate designed to protect his back from bullets distributed the impact through his torso like a lightning bolt. An adrenaline rush initially covered the stabbing pain of broken ribs. He was able to climb into the chopper next to his gun turret as the pilot lifted off for a long return flight to Camp Anaconda.
He sought help for the pain at a clinic staffed with personnel from the Kansas Guard’s 1st Battalion, 108th Aviation Regiment, that deployed with him from Topeka to the airbase in Balad, Iraq.
Inside the clinic, Capt. Wisner responded to Lindsey’s agony with a bizarre proposal.
“He wanted to do a rectal exam,” Lindsey said. “He offered to do things that were not part of a medical procedure — twice — in three days.”
The incident in Iraq occurred long before Wisner was exposed by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the Leavenworth County District Attorney’s office as a sexual predator who abused patients at Eisenhower Veterans Administration Medical Center. State and federal court records, including claims made in about 80 lawsuits, indicate Wisner frequently subjected patients to needless anal and penile examinations.
A few months after Lindsey’s encounter with Wisner in 2007, Wisner published a dispatch from Iraq in a newsletter distributed to members of his extended family.
Wisner described his duties in the Kansas Guard and insisted soldiers received the finest care.
“As a medical and military officer,” Wisner wrote, “I feel that the young men and women who are fighting this insurgency over here deserve the best medical care and support our country can provide, and I am proud to be able to do my part in that endeavor.”
Lindsey, who served more than 30 years in uniform and retired as a sergeant major in 2016, never received proper medical attention from Wisner for his injuries. To keep flying, Lindsey said, he would tightly bind his ribs with duct tape. Lindsey didn’t report Wisner’s inappropriate conduct.
“It was just something you didn’t say back then,” Lindsey said. “You’d be chastised. They’d ground me. I had to be with my troops.”
He said such an active-duty report in Iraq would have been handled by the same Kansas Guard officers who laughed during a battle update briefing as Wisner flashed slides showing evidence of U.S. soldiers’ sexually transmitted diseases.
Lindsey waited until shortly before retiring from the Kansas Guard to file a confidential complaint about Wisner. He was told months later the document had been lost along with files tied to complaints from other Kansas Guard members. He said a Kansas Guard officer handling sexual abuse issues indicated Kansas Guard leadership was loathe to delve into allegations involving Wisner, who by then was caught up in a legal whirlwind in Leavenworth.
Kansas Guard officials didn’t respond to repeated requests from The Topeka Capital-Journal for comment about Wisner’s years of service and the potential of impropriety involving troops deployed in Iraq or soldiers participating in routine physicals back in Kansas.
In an interview with federal investigators, Wisner was asked if he fondled active-duty soldiers.
“No,” he said. “No.”
Wisner’s Bronze Star
The men and women of the 108th returned from Iraq in 2007. Wisner was awarded the Bronze Star and promoted to major by the Kansas Guard.
The Horton resident had served in the U.S. Air Force and Air Force Reserve in the 1970s and 1980s. He earned a medical degree at the University of Wisconsin and received a Kansas license in 1993 to work as a physician assistant. He was in private practice before signing on with the Kansas Guard in 2005. He was assigned to a unit in Manhattan before being transferred to Topeka.
Wisner was entrusted with leadership roles on the Kansas Guard’s medical staff despite a 1999 complaint to the Kansas Board of Healing Arts alleging he engaged in “inappropriate, sexualized conduct” with a patient and evidence of his arrest in 1987 on a charge of soliciting a lewd act in San Bernardino, Calif.
Before retiring from the Kansas Guard in 2009, Wisner acquired the nickname “Sausage Fingers.” He also landed a job as a physician assistant at the VA Medical Center in Leavenworth.
VA patients reportedly began complaining about Wisner’s violation of medical boundaries in 2011, and the VA found itself confronted by expanding evidence of malfeasance. The VA sent letters to Wisner’s patients in an attempt to identify possible victims, but there is no evidence the Kansas Guard did likewise.
Kansas Guard Chief Warrant Officer 4 Steve Hood, who recently completed a career that included a quarter-century flying military helicopters, said enough should have been known by Kansas Guard commanders years ago to initiate a formal inquiry of Wisner.
Hood said the arrest of Wisner in 2015 for abusing VA patients ought to have compelled the Kansas Guard to track down approximately 220 soldiers, including Lindsey and himself, who deployed with the 108th to Iraq.
“When the Wisner case became public, I couldn’t understand why there was no movement on attempting to identify if there was any such incidences within the military,” Hood said. “He served as our flight surgeon for almost two years, and if he was doing this at the VA, he probably was doing it to soldiers on our deployment. I was dismayed that the battalion commander didn’t come forward and say, ‘Hey, he was my flight surgeon. We should check into this to make sure this didn’t happen on my watch.’ ”
Hood said the Kansas Guard, led by Maj. Gen. Lee Tafanelli, should awaken from its slumber of neglect or indifference to properly care for soldiers mistreated by Wisner.
“It is now 10 years after the deployment,” Hood said. “Soldiers are dying, moving and just getting lost in time. It just makes you lose faith that the system has your back or cares about your well-being after the fact.”
Wisner was accused of forceful anal penetration of VA patients during otherwise routine medical examinations. He was accused by veterans of rubbing their penis and massaging their testicles — sometimes at the same time — with bare hands. He allegedly threatened to withhold pain medication from veterans who resisted.
Veterans said they also were over-prescribed opiates by Wisner, apparently to make them dependent upon him once addicted. He may have relied upon confidential medical records to prey upon veterans with post-traumatic stress or individuals in a fragile mental state.
Wisner allegedly posed lewd questions to patients about their sex life. He purportedly made such comments as “things are looking good down there,” or inquired about how long a patient could “keep it up.”
It is unclear how Wisner’s conduct escaped VA officials responsible for vetting job applicants.
“Mr. Wisner should never have been hired by the VA in the first place,” said U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan. “It’s worse than infuriating that a person with a criminal record … was still hired to be at the front lines of veteran patient care.”
In May 2014, Wisner confided to a special agent with the VA’s office of inspector general that he was prepared to discontinue his career as a medical provider because he had been “letting his guard down.” In a subsequent interview with VA investigator Kerry Baker, Wisner said he “crossed the professional line.”
“I don’t have any business in medicine. Period,” Wisner told investigators during a taped interview before he was charged in the case. “All I can say is I truly messed up. I’m totally, completely — no control. I don’t feel good about what happened to these patients.”
Wisner surrendered his Kansas medical license in February 2015. He signed a consent decree in which he admitted to illegal sexual contact with VA patients and considered himself an “impaired practitioner and not capable of patient care.”
“There was clearly a pattern of deviant, negligent and unlawful actions perpetrated upon these brave soldiers in their time of great need,” said Daniel Thomas, part of an Independence, Mo., law firm that filed suit against Wisner and the federal government.
Flood of lawsuits
The torrent of lawsuits against Wisner and the VA allege the government was aware or should have been aware Wisner was a danger to patients. U.S. Department of Justice attorneys filed responses to a portion of the lawsuits, claiming the government wasn’t liable for actions of Wisner outside the scope of his employment.
In a pending suit brought by a U.S. Army veteran, the plaintiff alleged Wisner told patients his medical advice should be unquestioned because they were all combat veterans. Wisner had deployed to Iraq with the Kansas Guard while the plaintiff served in Iraq and other combat areas. At the VA hospital, the plaintiff was assigned to Wisner in 2011 for treatment of cardiac issues and knee pain.
“I am your battle buddy,” Wisner told the former soldier, according to the lawsuit. “You can trust me. I was a medic in combat. You trusted them when you were in combat and needed medics. And you can trust me.”
In August, Wisner was convicted in Leavenworth County District Court on felony counts of aggravated criminal sodomy and aggravated sexual battery, as well as three counts of misdemeanor sexual battery. The charges were drawn from Wisner’s improper treatment of VA patients from 2012 to 2014.
A retired U.S. Air Force officer testified at trial that Wisner shoved an object up his anus twice during an office visit.
“I hollered out, ‘What the (expletive) was that?’ He smiled at me,” the retiree said. “We were both officers. Supposedly gentlemen. I trusted him.”
Earlier this month, a Leavenworth County District Court judge sentenced Wisner to 15 years in prison.
A soldier’s quest
In April 2016, Lindsey filed a complaint with the Kansas Guard, pointing a finger at Wisner. The officer who took the report neglected to log it into a military database, Lindsey said.
In September of last year, Lindsey said, he was informed by another Kansas Guard officer that his complaint and those of his peers were missing.
“How do you lose something so personal?” Lindsey said. “That system was completely broken. No one is monitoring culture and climate.”
He said his case was handed off to a Kansas Guard officer monitoring sexual harassment, but Lindsey said no one showed a willingness to draw attention to Wisner’s service as an officer in the Kansas Guard.
“They ignored it,” Lindsey said. “When I filed this report, you could almost feel the ‘we don’t give a (expletive).’ ”
Lindsey contacted the U.S. Army’s inspector general assigned to the Kansas Guard in early 2017. He requested action be taken by the Kansas Guard to guarantee complaints of sexual misconduct were handled professionally.
Lindsey also sought therapy to steady himself. In the process, he wrapped his arms around a message of hope that he shares with others.
“Don’t give up,” he said. “Get help and realize you’re not alone. Don’t quit. You have to heal.”