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By Karen Jowers, Military Times
WASHINGTON - Walter Reed Army Medical Center is warning charitable groups that gifts to wounded troops and their families may violate federal law if not first approved by Army legal officers.
Officials at Walter Reed, the Army's largest medical facility, told representatives of 20 charities Sept. 27 that all charitable donations worth more than $20 must undergo military legal review.

The rules, designed mainly to prevent bribes to government employees, are not new but are news to some charities.

"I'll come out of Wal-Mart with $600 worth of videos and put two or three in a box to send, and guess what? We're over $20," said Mary Kay Salomone, founder of Operation Support Our Troops. "Maybe we need to have a blind eye so these people risking their lives can get a DVD that costs more than $20."

The rules cover all federal employees, including military members, and extend to family members.

Regulations also state that troops cannot solicit or coerce gifts. Yet troops deployed to Iraq and elsewhere have asked for, and received, specific items such as air conditioners, boots, DVD players and a variety of other items valued at more than $20.

Troops face discipline ranging from a warning to a court-martial, at their commanders' discretion, if they violate the regulations, Pentagon spokeswoman Cynthia Smith said in a written response to questions.

"Someone claiming to be soliciting iPods for his unit and then selling them on eBay would probably be dealt with more severely than someone who gets a free wheelchair paid for by a prohibited source," she wrote.

Charities are being reminded of the rules as the holiday gift-giving season quickly approaches.

Walter Reed is not saying that gifts worth more than $20 cannot be accepted, Smith said. Regulations simply require that certain gifts are covered by a written ethics opinion, she said.

Walter Reed "has streamlined forms and procedures to expedite gift-acceptance ethics opinions," she said, with an "immediate turnaround" of the answers.

Jim Weiskopf, a spokesman for the Fisher House Foundation, which provides housing for military families who need to stay near the bedside of their recuperating relatives, said the foundation has been careful to follow the rules.

For the foundation's Operation Hero Miles program, in which airline tickets are donated by citizens or airlines, for example, a service member or family member seeking free tickets must get approval from military lawyers, using a preprinted form, and must include it with their request.

But Weiskopf said the rules don't seem logical when applied to low-ranking troops and their families.

"These are privates and sergeants," he said. "They are not taking bribes. Congress needs to do something to change the law."

The risk of punishment is prompting other groups to review their practices.

Marie Wood, executive director of the Yellow Ribbon Fund, said she has changed how her group provides rental cars to families in Washington to be near wounded troops.

"We will be careful," Wood said. When military families call, "I tell them they have to go through the Walter Reed Family Assistance Center. We're going through the proper channels."

 
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