Wednesday, September 15th, 2004
As politicians make grand speeches supporting our troops, families of our wounded soldiers are being told they soon will no longer receive the modest government stipend that helps them leave job and home to stay at their loved one’s hospital bedside.
The majority of the 3,974 seriously wounded soldiers are young, and few earn more than $1,600 a month, tops. Their families are often of limited means and have a hard enough time keeping up with their bills. Family members forfeit wages and risk losing their jobs altogether as they help their soldier recover.
“None of these kids left a Park Ave. townhouse to go fight,” observed one Army combat officer.
With exactly that in mind, the stipend was established in April 2003, just as the war in Iraq commenced. It lapses Sept. 30.
“I think nobody expected the war to last that long,” an Army medical official said.
Surprise, surprise. A provision making the stipend permanent, Section 632 of HR4200, the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2005, is languishing in Congress as if it were not a crime to compound the anxieties of wounded heroes.
A House Armed Services Committee spokesman said HR4200 was “in conference” and suggested any current benefits to wounded soldiers would only “technically” expire and “go on as has been.” Those who disagree include the Department of Defense, which allowed, “it appears there will be a gap in payment of per diem.”
Meanwhile, a nation in a multibillion-dollar war will be saving the $51 a day plus lodging expenses now accorded the mother of 23-year-old Spec. Ken Comstock of the 2nd Battalion, 108th Light Infantry, New York Army National Guard. He is at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, recovering from a head wound he suffered in Iraq. His most recent surgery involved an ear-to-ear incision and shifting tissue to stop drainage from his skull.
“He’s now in a seven- to 10-day waiting period to make sure nothing else is leaking,” said his mother, Bonnie Comstock of upstate New York.
The mother has been able to remain at his side thanks to a patient employer and the stipend. She has observed his reaction whenever she prepares to leave the room.
“He gives this bewildered look: ‘What? Where are you going?'” the mother said.
Her son would then point to the wall clock above the sink on the other side of the room. She would have no trouble understanding the message.
“When are you coming back? How long are you going to be?”
He would hold up one finger then another.
“One hour? Two Hours?”
She would step out only long enough to get something to eat or send an E-mail. Each time she returned, she would see anew what her presence means to him.
“He’s my firstborn,” she said yesterday. “It’s that bond.”
She was notified Aug. 23 that her son had been wounded. She flew to the hospital in Germany where he was first treated and accompanied him on the flight to Andrews Air Force base on Labor Day weekend. She has now been away from her job as a restaurant manager for three weeks.
“I don’t want to lose my job, and I don’t want to leave my son here alone,” Comstock said.
She certainly could not afford to commute, and she had used the single trip the Army provides each parent of a wounded soldier.
“They said, ‘One trip. That’s it,'” the mother said.
And as if all that were not enough, the hospital’s family assistance office informed her she would soon be losing her stipend.
“I’m like, ‘What do you mean?'” Comstock recalled.
The family assistance people, who seem as kind as anybody, suggested she call her congressman.
“I said, ‘My son was seriously wounded in Iraq and now you’re telling me I have to call somebody to ask for food and lodging?'” she recalled.
While the mother spent another day with her wounded firstborn, a columnist called the office of Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), the House Armed Services Committee’s ranking minority member. A spokeswoman was unable to predict when the bill reinstating the stipend would become law.
“They’ve just started,” she said. “Hopefully, before they adjourn in October, but your guess is as good as mine.”