Statement of Senator Barack Obama About His Amendment to Provide Meals and Phone Service to Wounded Veterans

April 14, 2005

M. President, today I am offering an amendment to the fiscal year 2005 Emergency Supplemental, which I am pleased to announce is being cosponsored by Senators Corzine, Bingaman, and Graham. This amendment would meet certain needs of our injured service members in recognition of the tremendous sacrifices they have made in defense of our country.

The other day I had the opportunity to visit some of our wounded heroes at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

I know that many of my colleagues have made the same trip and I'd heard about their visits, but there is nothing that can fully prepare you for what you see when you take that first step into the Physical Therapy room.

These are kids in there. Our kids. The ones we watched grow up. The ones we hoped would live lives that were happy, healthy, and safe. These kids left their homes and families for a dangerous place halfway around the world. After years of being protected by their parents, these kids risked their lives to protect us.

And now, some of them have come home from that war with scars that may change their lives forever - scars that may never heal. And yet they sit there in that hospital, so full of hope and still so proud of their country.

These kids are the best of America. They deserve our highest respect, and they deserve our help.

Recently, I learned that some of our most severely wounded soldiers are being forced to pay for their own meals and their own phone calls while being treated in medical hospitals.

Up until last year, there was a law on the books that prohibited soldiers from receiving both their basic subsistence allowance and free meals from the military. Basically, this law allowed the government to charge our wounded heroes for food while they were recovering from their war injuries.

Thankfully, this body acted to change this law in 2003 so that wounded soldiers wouldn't have to pay for their meals.

But, we're dealing with a bureaucracy here, and as we all know, nothing is ever simple in a bureaucracy. So now, because 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. And after 90 days, even those classified as hospitalized on an outpatient status lose their free meals as well.

Also, while our soldiers in the field qualify for free phone service, injured service men and women who may be hospitalized hundreds or thousands of miles from home do not receive this benefit.

For soldiers whose family members aren't able to take off work and travel to a military hospital, hearing the familiar voice of a mom or dad or husband or wife on the other side of the phone can make all the difference in the world.

And yet, our government will not help pay for these calls. And it will not help pay for those meals.

Think about that. Think about the sacrifice these kids have made for their country, many of them literally risking life and sacrificing limb.

And now, at $8.10 a meal, they could end up with a $250 bill from the government that sent them to war every single month. This is wrong, and we have a moral obligation to fix it.

The first amendment that I'm offering today will do this. It will expand the group of "hospitalized" soldiers who cannot be charged for their meals to include those service members undergoing medical recuperation, therapy or otherwise on "medical hold." The number of people affected by this amendment will be small. Only about 4000 service members are estimated to fall under the category of "non-hospitalized."

The amendment is retroactive to January 1, 2005, in an effort to provide those injured service members who may have received bills for their meals with some relief from those costs. The amendment will also extend free phone service to those injured service members who are hospitalized or otherwise undergoing medical recuperation or therapy. I am proud that this amendement is supported by the American Legion, and I hope my colleagues will join them in that support.

I ask my colleagues to join me in supporting this amendment. These are our kids out there, and they're risking their lives for us. When they come home with injuries, the government that asked these kids to serve should provide them with the best possible care and support. This is a small price to pay for those who have sacrificed so much for their country.

I thank the Senior Senator from Alaska and my colleague from Mississippi for working with me on this issue. I am hopeful we can reach an agreement on this.



PROBLEM: Soldiers Receiving Treatment Must Pay for Their Own Meals

- The Department of Defense does not consider getting physical therapy or rehabilitation services in a medical hospital as being "hospitalized." Service members receiving treatment in military medical facilities who are on outpatient status for longer than 90 days are required to pay for their meals.

PROBLEM: Soldiers Receiving Treatment Must Pay for Phone Service

- All injured service members receiving treatment in military hospitals as far away as Germany must pay for their own service.

- In 2004, Congress required that prepaid phone cards be provided without cost to service members in theatre. The soldiers receive a benefit of $40 or 120 minutes per month.

SOLUTION: What the Care for Wounded Heroes Act Does

- Provides free meals in military hospitals for service members wounded in Iraq or Afghanistan who are undergoing medical recuperation or therapy or are on "medical hold."

- Gives service members wounded in Iraq or Afghanistan the same phone service benefits that they received while in theatre.