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In about-face, Walter Reed opens dining hall to wounded warriors after Fox News reporting

 

The U.S. military has reversed a string of decisions that would have restricted access for severely wounded troops to a popular dining hall at Walter Reed hospital, after Fox News began reporting on complaints from veterans and their families. 

The military earlier this month decided to invalidate meal tickets and reduce hours for the Warrior Cafe, the sole dining facility in building 62 -- home to all multiple amputees and long-term, recovering patients at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. 

The wife of one of the veterans affected by the decision told Fox News on Thursday that her husband, Sgt. Josh Wetzel, just received confirmation that the military was reversing course. 

"Josh just received the news from his squad leader that the Warrior (Cafe) will now be open again on the weekends and meal cards have been reinstated!" Paige Wetzel wrote in an email to Fox News. She said the reporting "influenced positive change here and our soldiers are getting what they deserve again." 

The Pentagon earlier claimed they were going to ease off the restrictions. 

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, had decided to reverse the changes. 

At the time, no patients had been notified of this decision. Wetzel confirmed on Thursday the hospital had reversed course. 

Initially, the military moved to close the cafe on weekends, shorten its hours and invalidate meal tickets. 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. 

Josh Wetzel, who lost both his legs when he stepped on a pressure plate IED outside Kandahar, Afghanistan in May 2013, had earlier spoken out in an interview with Fox News about the initial decision. 

"I mean it's called the Warrior Cafe, you would think it is for us," he said. 

"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." 

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 initial 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 would 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. 

An official at Walter Reed who wanted to remain anonymous reached out to Fox News to say that in order to ease the burden on the patients, shuttle buses were provided for those who want to go from building 62 to the food trailer. 

Family members and patients, though, told Fox News the buses just started appearing Wednesday, no schedule for them was clearly posted and its hours are erratic. They also said they discovered the buses have only two spaces for wheelchairs. There are over 160 families of wounded veterans in building 62. 

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 had a slightly different take. Many of them who spoke to Fox News are under the impression that the government didn'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."

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