WASHINGTON – Sgt. Brandon Erickson, 22, had just gotten through the third of five surgeries on his amputated right arm when he awoke at 6 a.m. to find a private in his Walter Reed Army Medical Center room 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, 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 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 of Westminster.
Many lawmakers said they were not aware of the meal charges until they were contacted by constituents, like Vogel, who were angry that their family members were charged for food while recovering from service-related injuries.
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.
Sen. Barbara Mikulski’s office said the Maryland Democrat did not know about the meal charges, either, until Vogel contacted her in July.
The Senate passed a Mikulski amendment to the Iraq supplemental spending bill, which was approved Friday, that ends the charges for fiscal 2004. Mikulski also co-sponsored a separate bill that would eliminate the meal charges permanently. It has not yet been acted on.
“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.”
The House last week unanimously passed a bill to exempt military personnel like Erickson from having to pay for hospital meals. All of Maryland’s House members voted for the bill except Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, R-Kennedyville, who was touring Iraq last week and was one of several dozen members who did not participate in the 399-0 vote.
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.
A Walter Reed spokeswoman said Friday that the hospital would not comment on the meal charges.
After a visit to Walter Reed before last week’s vote, Rep. Steny Hoyer, D- Mechanicsville, talked about the meal charges.
“This law is backward and unjust and it ought to be changed — the men and women serving our country deserve the best and most thorough treatment when they return from combat, and that includes providing them with meals during their tenure at the medical center,” Hoyer said in a prepared statement.
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 national office. “A grateful nation doesn’t hand our troops the bill after they’ve done so much for us.”
Erickson, of the North Dakota National Guard, will not have to pay for his meals 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,” his mom said.