"Insult to Injury" update

By Mark Benjamin
Published February 22, 2005 10:28PM (EST)

Salon reported last month that Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington started charging wounded outpatient soldiers for their meals as of January 3, apparently ignoring Pentagon regulations that cap food costs for soldiers. The result of that policy is that wounded soldiers have been left holding the bag -- at a price tag of $250 a month.

Now, we've learned that the world's largest veterans group wants Congress to step in. The American Legion is asking veterans' advocates on the House and Senate Armed Services Committees to draft legislation that would force the hospital to stop the food charges, said Mike Duggan, deputy director for national security and foreign relations at the American Legion in Washington, D.C. "What they are doing is basically passing the cost (of food) on to the customer," said Duggan. "But we have a different kind of customer," he said, meaning sick soldiers.

Meanwhile, since our story ran, officials at Fort Dix Army Base in New Jersey have taken steps to help soldiers from their base pay for food at Walter Reed. On Jan. 12, Fort Dix started handing out meal cards worth $17.50 a day to their soldiers at Walter Reed, according to a memo obtained by Salon. That's just one Army base, of course. If you are a wounded soldier from anywhere else, you are still out of luck -- and cash.

For its part, Walter Reed tells Salon the new charges follow Army regulations, but that the hospital is looking at ways to lower the costs on patients. The hospital "continues to workto reduce out-of-pocket meal expenses to soldiers," Walter Reed said in a statement.

When asked about the meal charges, military officials usually say the situation is "complicated." But it's actually pretty simple. Basically, if you don't live on an Army base, the Army pays you extra money each month for food. Officers get $183.99 a month and enlisted soldiers get $267.18. In Army talk that money is called the Basic Allowance for Subsistence.

Because that's relatively little, the Pentagon has wisely set up some rules to make sure that a soldier can get by. If a soldier decides to get that money and still eat at the base chow hall, the Pentagon limits the cost of eating breakfast, lunch and dinner to about $6 a day. Soldiers back from Iraq at Walter Reed used to eat for free. But starting Jan. 3, the hospital started charging outpatients for the meals they eat in the dining hall -- at a rate of around $17 a day. That means that thanks to Walter Reed's new charges, an enlisted soldier getting $267.18 a month just lost $258 each month starting last month.

But maybe if the American Legion gets its way, and other Army bases follow the example of Fort Dix, Walter Reed will be forced to change its policy. We'll stay tuned.

Mark Benjamin

Mark Benjamin is a national correspondent for Salon based in Washington, D.C. Read his other articles here.

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