End Near for Charge on Wounded Soldiers' Meals

Sgt. Brandon Erickson, 22, had just finished the third of five surgeries on his amputated right arm when he awoke at 6 a.m. to find a private in his room at Walter Reed Army Medical Center (search) with paperwork ready for him to sign.

"She said, 'This is a paper that says you have to pay $8.10 a day for your food.' I went off the deep end," said Erickson, a North Dakota National Guardsman who was injured in Iraq in July when a rocket-propelled grenade struck the cargo truck he was riding in.

Erickson, still groggy from surgery, refused to sign anything. The sergeant from the 957th Multi-Role Engineer Company (search) had just arrived back in the United States the night before, six days after the attack occurred.

"It didn't seem right that he would be fighting for our country and lose a limb for our country, and have to pay for his meals," said his mom, Ruth Vogel, a Maryland resident.

The policy has been in place since 1958 for military officers, and since 1981 for enlisted service members. It affects active duty and retired enlisted military personnel.

Many lawmakers said they were not aware of the meal charges until they were contacted by constituents who were angry that their family members were charged for food while recovering from service-related injuries.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski's (search) office said the Maryland Democrat did not know about the meal charges either, until Vogel contacted her in July. On Friday, the Senate passed the Iraq supplemental spending bill, which included an amendment by Mikulski that would end the charges for fiscal 2004.

Mikulski has also co-sponsored a separate bill that would eliminate the meal charges permanently, but action on it has not yet been taken.

"I am outraged that the U.S. military would charge a wounded soldier eight dollars a day for food," Mikulski said in a prepared statement. "Our men and women in uniform should not be expected to reimburse the U.S. government for their hospital meals."

A week earlier, the House passed a bill, 399-0, to exempt military personnel from having to pay for hospital meals. Among the 36 members who didn't vote, many were in Iraq at the time, meeting with soldiers.

The House defense appropriations bill, passed earlier this year, also includes an amendment that ends the charges for fiscal 2004. House and Senate conferees are currently working to hammer out a bill that would permanently end the charges.

Supporters of the bill said it is only fair that the government cover all service members' costs, particularly when it comes to their health care.

"Certainly we shouldn't nickel-and-dime our troops for the price of meals while they're recovering from injuries incurred in military service to our nation," said Steve Thomas, spokesman for the American Legion's (search) national office. "A grateful nation doesn't hand our troops the bill after they've done so much for us."

A Walter Reed spokeswoman said Friday that the hospital would not comment on the meal charges. But Erickson will not have to pay for his meals there after all. His charges were reversed after his mother's phone call to Mikulski's office. He spent about seven weeks in the hospital, which — at about $56.70 per week — could have cost him almost $400.

"That's quite a bit for a guy who doesn't have a lot of money," Vogel said.