An out soldier who was stationed at the United States Army’s Physical Disability Agency located in Arlington, Virginia, told the Washington Blade he was devastated when his HIV status was disclosed by a colonel to his coworkers there.
Sgt. Joseph Wittig, 34, told the paper that his name was on a list of HIV positive service members circulated for the past two years at the agency, which is tasked with providing fair hearings to determine whether injured military members are fit to serve.
Wittig learned he was HIV positive shortly before arriving at the disability agency in 2013 and was still grappling with his diagnosis when he says he was outed to colleagues. “I had just found out before I got here,” he told the paper, “and they spread it all over the world as if it was something like, oh, he’s got a cold.
“You’re not supposed to do that. That’s a major privacy violation.”
Although Wittig said his former coworkers did not openly discuss his HIV status, he was made to feel ostracized in other ways. On one occasion at an office potluck dinner, Wittig told the Blade he noticed those working at a food service table immediately removed communal serving spoons after he had used them. “People with HIV are made to feel so low,” he told the paper. “No one should feel they are garbage. It really gets to you. You don’t do that to people.”
Since the disclosure of his HIV status, Wittig has been transferred to Walter Reed Medical Center in Maryland where he told the paper he receives daily treatment for the anxiety and stress he has experienced since his status was disclosed.
The issue of HIV status disclosure has been a hot topic since actor Charlie Sheen came out as HIV positive on NBC's Today Show to prevent continued extortion efforts. Sheen said he had spent millions of dollars paying people who threatened to out him as HIV positive so he decided to come out to stop the blackmail.
Wittig, who has served for 12 years, including tours in Iraq and Haiti, said he filed a complaint with the Army's Office of Inspector General in 2014 regarding the disclosure, but he said he did not receive a response until he reached out to the Blade. Subsequently, Wittig told the paper he received a personal visit from the current director of the Physical Disability Agency, Col. Todd Garlic, who personally apologized to him.
Pentagon spokesperson Paul Prince told the Blade in an email: “We are looking into this matter and will implement the appropriate action(s).” He wrote that “Army leadership views all allegations of violations of soldiers’ privacy as a very serious matter.” Prince wrote that the Army is "prohibited by law to confirm the names, units or duty assignments of soldiers who may be Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) positive."
However, another Pentagon spokesman, Maj. Ben Sakrisson, told the Blade in an email that military health care providers, commanders and their designees are exempt from privacy rules in 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 wrote.
Wittig's complaint identifies former Army Physical Disability Agency director Col. Carl Johnson as the person who allegedly asked staff to compile a list of their HIV positive colleagues. The Blade could not reach Johnson for comment.