Dinner is served

A new Senate bill requires veterans hospitals to stop charging wounded soldiers for meals.

Published May 13, 2005 11:15PM (EDT)

Thanks to some hungry G.I.'s and a U.S. senator, some wounded soldiers will no longer have to dig into their own pockets to pay for their meals at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

On Wednesday, the Senate passed an amendment introduced by Illinois Democrat Barack Obama that will pay for them. It got added to an $82 billion emergency spending bill full of war money that President Bush is about to sign. The amendment applies to all military hospitals, not just Walter Reed.

Back in January, Salon reported that Walter Reed had begun to charge outpatient soldiers for their food. As Obama was preparing for an April 5 trip to visit wounded soldiers at the hospital, he came across the story, according to his staff. The senator was none too pleased and decided to ask the soldiers there about it.

He found that the soldiers were none too pleased, either.

"When our soldiers are recuperating from wounds received while defending us, the only thing that they should have to worry about is getting better, not about who's going to foot the bill for their meals," Obama said in statement Wednesday. Obama sits on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.

After Salon's story, the American Legion also announced that they didn't think it was fair to ask those soldiers to pay for their meals. An official for the nation's largest vets group offered high praise for Obama's amendment.

"We are extremely delighted," said Mike Duggan, deputy director for national security and foreign relations at the American Legion in Washington. "Particularly for those young men and women who have been severely wounded or disabled in the war on terrorism. It is only fitting, proper and fair that they should not have to pay for inpatient or outpatient meals at military facilities."

Until Jan. 3, soldiers back from war who were recovering at Walter Reed were eating for free. (Those who are confined to hospital beds still do.) But since then, when wounded soldiers getting long-term therapy at Walter Reed walked -- or wheeled themselves -- into the chow hall, Walter Reed started asking them to pull out their wallets.

The hospital was also ignoring Pentagon regulations that were supposed to prevent soldiers from having to pay too much to eat. Because of the change, some wounded soldiers lost about $250 a month.

This is how the soldiers were getting pinched: Depending on where they live, soldiers have the option of receiving a monthly allowance for food; officers get $183.99 per month, while enlisted soldiers get $267.18 per month. In Army talk that money is called the Basic Allowance for Subsistence.

Because that's relatively little, the Pentagon caps the cost of eating on post to around $6 a day. Under that plan, a soldier knows he can always survive on that allowance if he sticks to eating in an Army chow hall. Walter Reed is an Army post with a chow hall.

After Jan. 3, the hospital started charging outpatients for the meals eaten in the dining hall there -- but did not cap the cost, which runs at about $17 a day. That means that an enlisted soldier getting $267.18 per month for food from the military was now losing $258 each month, the difference between what the Army is giving them and what Walter Reed is charging them to eat.

Obama's amendment simply gives the outpatient soldiers the same free meals the inpatient soldiers receive.

Many of the soldiers from Walter Reed to whom I spoke during the past year were hurt and angry when the Army policy changed on Jan. 3. A soldier at Walter Reed, who requested anonymity because he was commenting without the required permission of a public affairs officer, said that Obama's amendment would make a lot of young G.I.'s happy.

"That's great. That will help a lot of soldiers, especially the young ones," the officer told me. "It really affects every soldier that comes through there."

By Mark Benjamin

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

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