Tuesday, October 18, 2005
I hate ingratitude more in a man than… babbling drunkenness…
— Shakespeare, Twelfth-Night
Once again we are reminded that when a president decides he would like to be a war president, we go to war, to paraphrase Mr. Rumsfeld, not with the accounting system you would like to have but with the accounting system you have. September 30 and October 14 were the reminders. September 30 was the date veterans were told there’s no free lunch. October 14 was the date a report in the Washington Post confirmed it. The September 30 date acquired significance because of a report made public in April 2004.
In that month there was a report that wounded military personnel in hospitals were being required to pay for their meals. It was disclosed that beginning in 1958 hospitalized military officers had to pay for their hospital food at a daily cost of $8.10. In 1981 it was decided enlisted personnel should be treated the same as officers and they, too, were charged $8.10 a day. That happened because service personnel are entitled to a monetary allowance for food known as Basic Allowance For Subsistence (BAS) if not living on a military base.
After the first Gulf war Congress decreed that service personnel who were receiving BAS at their home bases should continue to receive it when deployed even though they were taking all their meals at the bases to which they were assigned. Being in hospital after being wounded, however, was not considered deployment and hospitalized patients had to pay for their food. When that came to Congress’s attention in 2003 it decided war wounded should eat for free while being treated for war wounds. And eat for free they did-until January of 2005.
On January 3, 2005 it was decreed that free hospital food would be given only to inpatients confined to hospital beds and to certain outpatients. When that came to Congress’s attention there was outrage. In a speech on the Senate floor, on April 14, 2005, Barack Obama of Illinois gave a speech in which he said: “[B]ecause the Department of Defense doesn’t consider getting physical therapy or rehabilitation services in a medical hospital as ‘being hospitalized,’ there are wounded veterans who still do not qualify for the free meals other veterans receive. . . . This is wrong and we have a moral obligation to fix it.”
Congress fixed it. Section 1023(a) H.R. 1268 that became Public Law 109-13 prohibits charging anyone injured in Iraq or Afghanistan for their meals so long as they are “undergoing medical recuperation or therapy. . . at a military treatment facility. . . .” Unfortunately, subsection (b) said subsection (a) would expire September 30, 2005 even if the war had not. The war has not. As far as this writer can determine, (a) has. That’s the bad news. Donna St. George of the Washington Post imparted the October 14 bad news.
In her report Ms. St. George reports that 331 wounded soldiers have been hounded by the military following their release from the service for what are described as unpaid military debts. The debts can be incurred in a variety of ways. Here is one.
A military person serving in Iraq receives additional pay for combat. If the soldier loses a leg and is sent home for treatment, the soldier’s pay is reduced because the soldier is no longer in harm’s way, the harm having been done. However, some soldiers continue to be paid as if they were still in harm’s way. When the error is discovered, the army begins collection efforts using, if necessary, the services of collection agencies that are not always debtor-friendly. This happens for a reason.
According to Gregory D. Kutz, the General Accounting Office’s managing director for forensic audits and special investigations, the computer system used by the defense department is out of date. He told Ms. St. George that the defense department had been trying, unsuccessfully, to modernize it since the mid 1990s. According to Mr. Kutz, in some Army National Guard and Reserve units, more than 90 percent of the unit members have fallen victim to computer errors and been asked to repay thousands of dollars inadvertently paid them by errant computers. That’s the bad news. Here’s a tiny bit of good news. There may still be a free lunch.
Although September 30 has come and gone, it seems possible that the computer will not notice that the law providing for free meals has changed. That possibility notwithstanding, those in hospital should set aside $8.10 a day in case the administration discovers its inadvertent munificence and demands repayment. George Bush is unlikely to tolerate spending money on the wounded who he certainly believes will be better men and women when they learn to take care of themselves the way the rich do.