Prisoners of war suffer in ways most veterans don't, enduring humiliating forced marches, torture or other trauma that may haunt them long afterward. In partial recompense, the government extends them special benefits, from free parking and tax breaks to priority in medical treatment.
Trouble is, some of the much-admired recipients of these benefits apparently don't deserve them.
There are only 21 surviving POWs from the first Gulf War in 1991, the Department of Defense says. Yet the Department of Veterans Affairs is paying disability benefits to 286 service members it says were taken prisoner during that conflict, according to data the VA released to The Associated Press.
A similar discrepancy arises with Vietnam POWs. Only 661 officially recognized prisoners returned alive -- and about 100 of those have since died, according to Defense figures. But 966 purported Vietnam POWs are getting disability payments, the VA told AP.
Being classified as a POW doesn't directly increase a veteran's monthly disability check. There's no "POW payment." But a tale of torture and privation can influence whether a vet receives some money or nothing at all in disability payments, and the VA's numbers raise questions about how often such tales are exaggerated or invented altogether.
At the root of the problem is a disconnect between two branches of government: The Defense Department determines POW status and posts the lists online; the VA awards benefits, but evidently does not always check the Defense list to verify applicants' claims. The result: numbers of benefit recipients that are higher than the number of recognized POWs.
"They're either phonies or there's a major administrative error somewhere," retired Navy Cmdr. Paul Galanti, who is on a VA advisory panel for POW issues, said when told of the agency's numbers.
VA spokesman Terry Jemison says POW status is confirmed "in conjunction with Department of Defense authoritative records." But the agency has not explained discrepancies between its POW numbers and the Defense Department's, despite repeated requests.
Galanti, who was shot down over North Vietnam in 1966 and spent nearly seven years in the infamous "Hanoi Hilton" prison, calls the discrepancy "outrageous" and adds, "Somebody ought to get fired for that."