The Army ignored her warnings about a dangerous colleague. Then he set her on fire
Katie Blanchard told her commanders that her colleague was dangerous, but her warnings were ignored. Three years after she was nearly killed, she's fighting to hold the Army accountable.
Alone in her office, Katie Blanchard saw him out of the corner of her eye.
It was Clifford Currie, a 54-year-old civilian employee who Blanchard supervised. She couldn’t yet see what was in his hands.
For months, Blanchard, then a first lieutenant, had warned her supervisors and coworkers that something would happen to her. She told them that Currie scared her. He would fly off the handle at a moment’s notice. He would yell and physically intimidate her.
She told them Currie was dangerous.
Then he did what she said he would.
As Currie stood in the doorway of Blanchard’s second floor office at Munson Army Health Center, he pulled out a small clear bottle filled with a brown liquid. His eyes were glazed over and bloodshot as he doused her in gasoline.
Then he lit a pair of matches and threw them on the 26-year-old Army nurse, lighting her on fire.
Blanchard survived the Sept. 7, 2016 attack, but was left scarred for life with third degree burns on her face, head, arms, neck, back and chest. She still endures sleepless nights due to post-traumatic stress.
As she lay on the hospital floor after the attack, Blanchard screamed, “you knew this was going to happen,” she told Task & Purpose.
“I didn’t think I was going to live to see another day but I wanted people to know this should have been prevented,” she said.
Blanchard’s supervisors were well aware of Currie’s hostility towards her. In fact, Blanchard reported him multiple times in previous months, including twice on the day she was brutally attacked.
They ignored her warnings. Now, she intends to hold them accountable.
‘Please, don’t leave me there as a sitting duck’
As the officer in charge of pediatrics at the Fort Leavenworth, Kansas hospital, Blanchard had been Currie’s immediate supervisor since July 2015.
A civilian employee and Navy veteran, Currie was responsible for coordinating care for patients as part of the Army’s Exceptional Family Member Program. It was a job that required interpersonal skills, organization, and time management. He handled his responsibilities poorly, which meant he was frequently at odds with Blanchard, according to a command investigation obtained by Task & Purpose.
Though Currie had a well-documented history of professional shortcomings, his relationship with Blanchard was openly hostile: With her, he was argumentative and combative, often picking fights at the slightest perceived provocation. The encounters frequently left Blanchard in tears and afraid.
On multiple occasions, Blanchard told her chain of command she felt unsafe around Currie, according to the 685-page report on the investigation she provided to Task & Purpose.
Army investigators reviewed more than 1,000 pages of documents, including witness statements, law enforcement case files, and email correspondence. Though some names and specific details were redacted, statements from 25 witnesses supported Blanchard’s claim that she’d warned her supervisors — and anyone else who would listen — that she felt Currie was a threat.
The hospital’s chain of command knew that Currie “exhibited erratic behavior and risk indicators,” and that he “had multiple angry outbursts, acted ominously, and actively intimidated” Blanchard, the report said.
Two weeks before the assault Blanchard said that she met with her supervisors, and pleaded: “Please, don’t leave me there as a sitting duck,” but was told to “come back with facts, not emotion,” she told Task & Purpose. “I went back to my office and I just cried, because I just felt so hopeless.”
The report noted that Currie was the subject of 53 complaints from patients between 2013 and 2016 — 31 of which occurred in 2016 while Blanchard was his supervisor. According to the report, three of the patient complaints described Currie as “being hostile.”
By Feb. 2016 Currie was barred from accessing patient information, and the bulk of his duties were shifted to Blanchard, according to the investigation. Currie was placed on a performance improvement plan, designed to either get him on track, or pave the way for his dismissal, neither of which happened. Despite the volume of recorded incidents involving Currie — and the investigation’s description of him as a “below standard performer” who failed to take responsibility for his mistakes — he remained employed by the Army.
The investigation found that Munson Army Health Center leadership, along with employees at the hospital’s Civilian Personnel Advisory Center and Munson Human Resources, “failed to recognize and react to the overall tension in the supervisor, supervisee relationship” between Blanchard and Currie and “in some instances contributed to aggravating the tension level by their inaction or delayed action.”
While the report was careful to say the delay did not “cause” Currie to attack Blanchard, it does note that by not addressing a problematic situation early on, commanders at Munson “allowed unsafe conditions in the workplace to develop.”
Currie is currently serving a 20-year sentence in federal prison for attempted murder, but Blanchard doesn’t think justice has been served, and she intends to hold her command and the Army responsible for what happened.
“Everything that happened here was all preventable,” Dan Maharaj, a former attorney for Blanchard, told Task & Purpose. “Had the military taken appropriate action to step in to address her concerns, this would not be the case today in terms of where she’s at and the harm she suffered and her family suffered.”
Blanchard, now represented by Natalie Khawam with the Tampa, Florida-based Whistleblower Law Firm, is mounting a lawsuit alleging that her commanders and supervisors at the hospital were negligent in failing to heed her warnings, and thus prevent the attack.
On April 18, 2019, the Army denied Blanchard’s claim for damages, citing the Feres Doctrine — a 1950 Supreme Court precedent which bars service members and their families from suing the military for injury or death brought on by their service. The claim, which Blanchard’s attorneys provided to Task & Purpose, included the names of 14 people within her chain of command who were allegedly warned by her that Currie posed a threat.
But Blanchard and her attorneys say they will keep fighting for reform of the doctrine, whether it takes a Supreme Court challenge or the intervention of lawmakers.
A spokesman for the Army declined to comment for this story, stating that the service “does not comment on matters that may be pending litigation.”
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Blanchard wasn’t the only one at Munson Army Health Center who thought Currie might become violent. It seemed to be an open secret among hospital staff.
“I did have some thoughts that he might come at me in the parking lot by my car or corner me in my office,” one of Blanchard’s colleagues told investigators. “I thought he might hit or punch. I did have random thoughts about bombs, but mostly about being cornered in an office or parking lot and attacked.”
“It was a gut feeling,” another colleague told investigators. “Everyone knew that it was building up and thought it could get violent.”
That sentiment was repeated by yet another, who told investigators the worsening relationship between Currie and Blanchard was “known by most of the staff because she was cornered by [Currie] in the hallway” about once a month, according to the report. “During these encounters he would frequently raise his voice and display aggressive characteristics.”
That colleague told investigators that there were “numerous times” when Blanchard stated “she feared for her life, and ‘he is going to kill me.'”
According to an April 30, 2019 article by Meaghan Myers of Army Times, Currie accused Blanchard of racism, and said that he “would take care of her” in front of another hospital employee, who was reportedly advised to keep quiet about the threat.
On multiple occasions in 2016, Blanchard and others reported their concerns about Currie to leadership at Munson, according to the report.
On Jan. 26, Blanchard reported an incident to her command after she visited Currie in his office to discuss a file he sent her. According to the investigation, Currie stepped around his desk with a “wide aggressive appearing stance,” and told Blanchard to “get the fuck away.” As Blanchard backed out of the room, Currie continued to move toward her.
A week later on Feb. 1, Currie “exhibited hostile and unprofessional behavior toward an [Exceptional Family Member Program] family resulting in an extensive — approximately eight page — [Interactive Customer Evaluation] complaint that captured the attention of the senior chain of command,” the report noted.
Then in May, several people remarked that Currie’s behavior had grown more inappropriate and public, “specifically his disrespect and aggressive tone and demeanor toward and about 1LT Blanchard,” reads the investigation, which went on to note that the trend continued into August, and that Currie’s “behavior did not improve, it worsened.”
By summer, the situation had grown so dire that Blanchard went to the hospital’s head of security on Aug. 19, because she wanted to protect herself from Currie — her direct subordinate and someone she had to interact with on a daily basis. Blanchard, who has a concealed carry permit, told Task & Purpose that she wanted to know if she could bring her personal firearm with her to work, but was told she could not.
Instead, she was shown how to record conversations on her phone — they even tested whether it could record from within her cargo pocket — so she could discretely document threatening encounters with Currie.
Afterward, Blanchard was taken back to her office to examine “items she could use as weapons” and what furniture could be used defensively in case of an attack, according to the report.
The last warnings Blanchard gave were on the day she was attacked.
‘Scream for help and run out the door. Don’t get stuck in the office’
It was Sept. 7, 2016.
Twice that day, Blanchard voiced her fears that Currie was dangerous.
The first came in response to an email Currie had sent to his work account from his personal account a little after midnight.
So that Blanchard could ensure Currie was responding to patient requests — something he had failed to do in the past — emails he received on his work computer were automatically forwarded to her, she said.
“[The email] was very cryptic, and almost like Gollum’s speech from Lord of the Rings,” Blanchard told Task & Purpose. “I told security about it, I told my supervisors about it. It was really weird — it sounded like he was having a mental break. The whole essence of the email was that I was out to get him.”
That was corroborated by another colleague who told investigators that on the day of the assault, Blanchard mentioned a “very odd email from Mr. Currie,” written in the first and third person, as if Currie were having a conversation with himself.
“In the conversation that followed 1LT Blanchard said something about what he could be planning now against me,” the colleague said. “She said this jokingly but you could tell she really had a fear.”
Blanchard warned her commanders again later that afternoon.
After Currie submitted a set of incorrectly compiled spreadsheets, Blanchard called him to her office so the two could work through them together.
“Because he had already turned it into me two or three times, he cracked,” Blanchard told Task & Purpose. “He started screaming at me and he said: ‘You, you’re the problem. You’re the problem,’ and just was screaming at the top of his lungs.”
Suddenly, Currie changed his tone, Blanchard said. “And he’s like ‘Come to my office, I want to show you something. Come to my office.'”
The invitation after months of arguments — many heated and initiated by Currie — put Blanchard on edge. She sensed something was wrong, so she refused. A subsequent FBI investigation revealed that in May, Currie had used his smartphone to search Yahoo and Quora for how to cut a person’s carotid artery.
“I hadn’t put the dots together that he was trying to lure me into his office to kill me, but I just knew that something was wrong,” she said.
Blanchard told Task & Purpose that she immediately went to her supervisor to report the incident, but the response amounted to “that sucks, but there’s nothing we can do about it,” she said.
She was attacked just hours later. It was around 5 p.m. and with the work day drawing to a close, Blanchard noticed that Currie’s office door was shut, though she hadn’t seen him leave.
Currie was no longer permitted to be in the building after his shift had ended, Blanchard told Task & Purpose, and by this point, she knew “never to be alone with him,” so she took a colleague with her. They found Currie at his desk, staring vacantly at his computer monitor, and told him he needed to go home.
Then Blanchard went back to her office by herself, took off her walkie talkie — her sole lifeline, since the room didn’t have a panic button — and sat at her desk to pack up the rest of her things.
Currie walked in minutes later.
“He took the gasoline and he dumped it on me real quickly and he took two lit matches and threw them on me,” Blanchard told Task & Purpose. “I went up in flames right away. I kept thinking ‘I’m here alone and I’m going to die in my office.”
On fire and partially blind, Blanchard kept telling herself to “scream for help and run out the door. Don’t get stuck in the office.”
She made it into the hallway, frantically swatting at the flames with her bare hands, as a pediatric nurse practitioner ran to her to help put out the blaze. When Blanchard opened her eyes, she saw Currie coming toward her with a pair of scissors and a straight-edge razor.
As Currie stabbed at Blanchard, a second colleague grappled with her attacker.
“At one point he had pushed me down to the ground and I remember his foot over my throat and he was stomping on me — just kicking and stomping and I’m still on fire,” Blanchard said.
There was a break in the struggle as Currie was wrestled to the ground by a coworker, who pinned him in a bear hug.
When Blanchard looked up she saw Currie sitting on the floor, staring at her. “He was smiling,” Blanchard told Task & Purpose.
“I remember screaming at them and telling them to get him out of the hallway because I didn’t want him to have any pleasure in seeing me hurt.”
The colleague who went with Blanchard to Currie’s office that day later told investigators: “As I left work that evening I noticed there were several emergency vehicles turning off Grant Avenue heading toward Munson. Although I am not able to explain why, I had a sinking fearful feeling; and for some reason I found myself inwardly hoping 1LT Blanchard was safe.”
Blanchard still bears the physical and psychological scars from that day. Three years after the attack she’s endured more than 100 surgeries and sees a behavioral counselor.
Because of the burns on her upper torso, she faces near constant discomfort, and at times, physical pain: Sleeping is difficult because her burned limbs swell, and so she often sleeps on a couch stacked with pillows. She has frequent appointments with specialists for her injuries and goes through a tub of $20 extra-strength moisturizer every few days just so she can wear clothes comfortably and go outdoors without her skin hurting.
On May 13, 2019, she was medically retired from the Army as a captain, and though her time in uniform is over, her fight is not.
‘This isn’t incident to service’
Despite the findings of the command investigation, Blanchard’s lawsuit faces an uphill battle due to a decades-old legal rule called the Feres Doctrine. Her lawsuit against the government will likely be tossed out before her attorneys have a chance to make their case.
The Feres Doctrine was established in 1950 by the Supreme Court in Feres vs. United States, a case involving the Federal Tort Claims Act that allows citizens to sue the government for negligence or wrongdoing. In Feres, the Court ruled that the federal government could not be held liable “for injuries to members of the armed forces arising from activities incident to military service.”
The Feres Doctrine essentially prohibits troops and their families from suing the military for injury or death brought on by their service — including workplace violence.
“This isn’t incident to service,” Blanchard told Task & Purpose. “If workplace violence is incident to service then nobody would send their sons and daughters to be in the military.”
In the decades since the rule was established, it has been applied to a wide range of instances — from training mishaps, to sexual assault, and medical malpractice. Workplace violence and negligence also fall under the Feres Doctrine.
“The scope of Feres and how it affects soldiers — it’s heartbreaking,” Blanchard added. “It’s a broken system.”
As Task & Purpose previously reported, the reasoning behind Feres is two-fold: A system for compensating military personnel and their families for injury or death already exists in the form of disability compensation and life insurance payments; and opening the military to lawsuits might invite second-guessing of command decisions in civilian courts.
However, advocates argue that the legal rule has been applied too broadly.
“The destructive nature of the Feres Doctrine can be seen in Katie’s case,” Dr. Dwight Stirling, the CEO of the Center for Law and Military Policy, told Task & Purpose.
“Under Feres, service members like Katie are relegated to second-class status, barred from accessing a basic right like civil litigation, a right their sacrifices allow everyone else in society to enjoy,” said Stirling, who testified in Washington before a House Armed Services subcommittee hearing on the Feres Doctrine in April.
Another criticism of the Feres Doctrine is that it results in a double standard, one set of rules for service members, and another for civilians. If Blanchard had been a civilian employee working at Munson Army Health Center instead of an active-duty soldier when Currie attacked, she would be able to sue the government for negligence. But since Blanchard was serving in the military at the time, she can’t.
“I wholeheartedly agree that in combat when you don’t have the time, you don’t have the resources, that we want to make sure that our commanders can make these decisions,” Blanchard told Task & Purpose.
But Blanchard and other advocates of Feres reform draw the line for situations that are far removed from the battlefield, like the small military clinic at a stateside Army base where Blanchard worked at the time of the attack.
“I am barred from any recourse against them, when they failed to follow their own procedures,” Blanchard said. “When they failed to protect their soldiers.”
Feres could be changed if the Supreme Court decided to hear her case, though that’s unlikely to happen soon since the nation’s highest court only accepts about 80 new petitions per term, and refused to hear a separate case challenging the doctrine in May.
The other option is to push for Congressional action, which has seen some movement in recent months.
On April 30, 2019, Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) introduced a bill named after Army Sgt. 1st Class Richard Stayskal, a Special Forces soldier whose lung cancer was misdiagnosed by military doctors, as Task & Purpose previously reported. The bill, which included both Republican and Democrat sponsors, proposes allowing service members to sue the military for medical malpractice in specific cases.
However, both The Sergeant First Class Richard Stayskal Military Medical Accountability Act of 2019 and the recently denied Supreme Court petition, for a Navy lieutenant who died at a military hospital due to alleged medical malpractice, would not help Blanchard’s case to punish her command for alleged negligence.
‘This is not what the doctrine was intended to protect’
For the time being, Blanchard and her lawyers are waging a two-pronged legal battle against commanders they allege were negligent, and seeking to change the 69-year-old Supreme Court precedent.
Blanchard’s former attorney, Maharaj, told Task & Purpose that he hopes her story will galvanize support for changing how the Feres Doctrine is applied in cases of negligence — in much the same way that stories of medical malpractice rallied advocates and lawmakers to support victims like Stayskal, who is also represented by Whistleblower Law Firm.
“For cases like Katie’s where the negligence was so egregious — there were multiple people involved here, and they were on notice — this is the type of case that is a compelling argument to show Congress and to show the Court that this is not what the doctrine was intended to protect,” Maharaj said.
On Nov. 2, 2017, Currie received the maximum sentence for one count of assault with intent to commit murder — 20 years, which he’ll serve in federal prison — followed by three years of supervised release, according to the Department of Justice. Though Currie was ordered to pay restitution to Blanchard for roughly $3.5 million, the mother of three said she doubts she’ll ever get a dime of it.
“I’ll never see any of the money of Clifford Currie,” Blanchard told Task & Purpose. “He sold his house, and car, and he’s in prison, but the military gets off not having to help me with any of that?”
With her lawsuit against the government, Blanchard is seeking a total of $10 million in damages — an estimate of $3.5 million for what her attorneys say she would have earned had she stayed in the Army until retirement, with the remaining $6.5 million in damages sought due to the hardship her ordeal has caused her family, Maharaj explained.
Since the Army denied her lawsuit in April by citing the Feres Doctrine, her lawyers have until Oct. 18 to file their claim in the U.S. District Court — at which point she’ll have to dig in for a long slog as she tries to move her case forward.
Due to Feres, the lawsuit will likely be thrown out, then she and her attorneys will have a chance to appeal, before that too is probably dismissed. It’s all part of a long process — one that could take years — to get Blanchard her day in the nation’s highest court, or drum up enough public support along the way to pressure Congress into introducing a bill that allows for lawsuits in cases like hers.
What keeps her going is the hope that her story might help prevent other incidents of negligence and workplace violence in the military, by showing that the current measures aren’t working, she said.
“There were all these red flags, but nobody acted,” Blanchard told Task & Purpose. “I followed their process, I followed the procedure to a T and nobody did the hard, right thing.”
“Nobody tried to protect me, and this isn’t right and I wasn’t happy getting a handshake and ‘thank you for your service, here’s the door.'”