WASHINGTON - After a grenade exploded inside his Humvee in Iraq, Marine Staff Sgt. Bill Murwin was treated at a military hospital in Germany and spent four weeks at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. Part of his left foot was amputated.
His medical care was free, but the government billed him $243 for the food.
Then, just three days after he received his first bill for the hospital food in Germany, he got a stern letter saying the bill was overdue. It warned that his account would be referred to a collection agency.
Murwin, like thousands of other military personnel hospitalized every year, is expected to reimburse the government $8.10 per day for food. That's standard procedure because of a law Congress passed in 1981. But it has angered many military families over the years.
When Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Largo, and his wife, Beverly, heard about the problem, they personally paid Murwin's tab. Then the congressman introduced a bill to change the rules.
Rep. Young said Wednesday that the soldiers "were sent to war by their country. Many of them will be handicapped for the rest of their lives - and we're asking them to pay $8.10 a day for their food! There's something really wrong with that."
The practice is especially egregious, Young said, because "the food probably isn't that good."
The rule was established because most military personnel receive $8.10 a day as a "basic allowance for subsistence" for food. But when they are hospitalized, the government tries to recoup the money on the theory that they are eating hospital food and therefore are double-dipping.
Military officials have long disliked the rule but felt they had to enforce it because of the 1981 law.
"If I could be king for a day, I'd stop it in a minute," said Maj. Gen. Kevin C. Kiley, who commands the Army hospitals in the eastern United States.
The government already bends the rules for soldiers in combat. They are allowed keep the $8.10 even though they are also getting free food, according to Young's office.
Murwin, 31, a sheriff's deputy in Nevada with 10 years of active duty in the Marines and three years in the Reserves, says he was flabbergasted the government would bill him.
"Holy smokes," he said. "I'm in the hospital - and they're going to charge me for my food?"
He says he was willing to pay but thinks it's unfair that young soldiers get billed.
"What made me so hot is that (it applies to) privates and lance corporals - guys who barely make enough money to pay for their own food, let alone take care of this," Murwin said.
Kiley, the Army medical commander, said the costs can add up. "If you're here for a couple of months, you could rack up a thousand dollars," he said.
Young, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said he was unaware of the law until his wife heard about it from Murwin's father-in-law. He has quickly lined up support for his bill, which would reverse the rule so military personnel do not have to pay.
His staff hasn't had time to estimate the cost of the bill, Young said, but the government has an obligation to pay for the food of injured soldiers.
The bill has 96 co-sponsors and has been endorsed by associations that represent enlisted personnel. Because of the strong support, the bill is likely to sail through Congress in the next few weeks.
Kiley said that he is glad to see the bill and that it has wide support in the military. But he disagrees with Young's unfavorable assessment of the hospital cuisine.
"It really is pretty good food," Kiley said. "It's not the same as a four-star restaurant. But we work pretty hard at it."
Murwin concurred, but said his taste buds had been dulled by weeks of eating field chow - called MREs (for Meal, Ready to Eat) - in Iraq.
"I was expecting the worst" from the hospital food, he said. "I was pleasantly surprised. I actually got a steak dinner one night."
- Bill Adair can be reached at 202 463-0575 or email@example.com