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Insult to Injury: Wounded warriors snubbed at Walter Reed dining hall

 

In a disturbing revelation about the treatment of America's most severely wounded troops, Fox News has learned the military earlier this month decided to invalidate meal tickets and reduce hours for the sole dining facility in the Walter Reed building where they are recovering. 

The decision affects the Warrior Cafe located inside building 62, home to all multiple amputees and long-term, recovering patients at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. 

The decision would mean wounded warriors who would normally have a government-funded meal just down the hall would have to walk, wheel or limp nearly a half-mile across the Walter Reed campus to the temporary "food trailer" for breakfast, lunch and dinner. 

"I mean it's called the Warrior Cafe, you would think it is for us," said Sgt. Josh Wetzel, who lost both his legs when he stepped on a pressure plate IED outside Kandahar, Afghanistan in May 2013. He's been recovering at Walter Reed since and has been a daily customer at the cafe. 

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The status of the military's decision may be in flux. 

After Fox News submitted multiple inquiries with senior military officials earlier this week, the Pentagon responded late Wednesday. Lt. Col. Catherine Wilkinson, a Pentagon spokesman, told Fox News that Dr. Jonathan Woodson, assistant secretary of Defense for health affairs, has decided to reverse the changes. 

Yet so far, no patients at Walter Reed have been notified of that decision and there has been no formal announcement. 

"It makes a lot of people mad that they can't get into their wheelchair and wheel down to the Warrior Cafe," Wetzel said. "Now they have to wheel all the way across base to use their meal cards." 

'It's called the Warrior Cafe, you would think it is for us."

- Sgt. Josh Wetzel, who lost both legs in Afghanistan

Wetzel's wife Paige is nine months pregnant with their first child and is due this coming Monday. She says she's worried about how much time and effort her husband will have to spend seeking food between appointments, while she is in the maternity ward. 

"In my opinion it's a total independence thing," Paige said. "If I were to leave for a day or two I would know Josh could go right down the hall, feed himself and he'd be fine. Now the only alternative is to leave our building." 

Walter Reed has already closed the cafe on weekends. Paige says the Army offered to have Josh order his meals in advance. "They explained that we could use our squad leaders to order meals for the weekend, but it has to go through the squad leader (and then) through the first sergeant," Paige said. "So how do you plan for that to make sure you get what you need for the weekend?" 

In addition to the weekend closure, the base also decided to reduce the cafe's hours from 60 to 50 a week. Instead of closing at 8 p.m. it now closes at 6 p.m., making it difficult for those getting occupational therapy to get there in time. 

The patients of building 62, many of whom have endured 50 surgeries or more and are expected to spend up to two years recovering at Walter Reed, were told of the decision to end meal tickets at the Cafe in an Aug. 7 text message from their squad leader. The message explained that the changes to the meal tickets will take place on Sept. 3. That message was followed by a heated town hall meeting last week. 

"I was very upset," said Carolee Ryan. She is the mother of Marine Staff Sgt. Thomas McRae, a triple amputee, partially blinded, single father whose wife left him after he sustained his injuries in January of 2012 in Sangin, Afghanistan. 

She was one of the mothers who made her voice heard during that town hall meeting. 

"I felt it was a slap in my son's face as a service member. As many times as he has been deployed -- what they were doing to him was a disservice," she said. 

Paige Wetzel said the families felt the decision was made without their input and for reasons that are hard to understand.  "It felt like the money had been deemed appropriate somewhere else and I don't see how that could happen," Wetzel said. 

Officials in the Pentagon and at Walter Reed did not respond to questions about why the changes were made, but congressional sources with knowledge of the decision say it was based on concerns that government funds for the warrior meals were being misappropriated. They said that because the cafe is listed as a "self sustaining" business, it is not allowed to receive government subsidies, such as the meal tickets and appropriated funds. So the military decided the cafe could no longer accept the government meal cards. 

The families and patients have a slightly different take. Many of them who spoke to Fox News are under the impression that the government doesn't like paying for the higher prices that come with the better food. 

"The food quality is not nearly as good (at the trailer) as it is at the Warrior Cafe," Josh Wetzel said. "The Warrior Cafe has something for everyone like a grill, hot food, salad bars, sandwiches and drinks." 

Carolee Ryan says the trailers specialize in "processed food." 

Walter Reed plans to eventually replace the trailers with a new cafeteria, though it's not expected to be completed for months. But even the new cafeteria will be a haul for the wounded occupants of building 62. For now, Josh's best options are to pay for a meal using his modest Army paycheck or to walk on his prosthetics to the trailer. 

"I would say it's close to half a mile ... for guys who are on their wheelchair or using prosthetic legs -- you know that is a long way to go," he said. 

Adding insult to injury, there are only two handicap-accessible tables in the trailer, and neither the bathroom nor the exit doors has push-button access. 

"It's quote unquote handicap accessible, but for guys who have serious mobility injuries -- like they can't use their hands that well -- you know it is tough for them," Josh Wetzel said. 

Thomas McRae's mother says the whole situation breaks her heart. She said her son told her he would consider going hungry before wheeling himself to the trailers. 

"Now I get it," Ryan said. "Back in the Vietnam War when all the men and women were coming home (I understand) how they felt ... and I didn't think it would come to this."

Jennifer Griffin currently serves as a national security correspondent for FOX News Channel . She joined FNC in October 1999 as a Jerusalem-based correspondent.