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 released by VA to The Associated Press.
A similar discrepancy arises with Vietnam POWs. Only 661 officially recognized prisoners returned from that war 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.
For one Korean War veteran, a made-up story helped to ensure more than $400,000 in benefits before his lies were discovered. A Gulf War vet told a tale of beatings and mock executions, though he was never even a POW. Four women Vietnam vets blamed disabilities on their time as prisoners — even though there's no record of female POWs in that war.
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 DoD list to verify applicants' claims. 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 DoD's, despite repeated requests for comment.
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."
But as service members return from Iraq and Afghanistan, he knows an investigation that could bog down benefits would be shouted down as anti-veteran. And so the investigating falls to private watchdog groups like the P.O.W. Network, which says it has outed some 2,000 POW pretenders.
Nothing could be more pro-veteran, such groups say, than to go after people who are taking money meant for their comrades — and also, in effect, stealing their honor.
Significant benefits at stake
There's incentive to lie. A 100 percent disability rating can be worth more than $35,000 a year in tax-free VA benefits for a married veteran with at least one dependent child — not to mention also making the veteran eligible for Social Security disability payments, and full health coverage and significant educational benefits for himself and his family.
And a POW designation in VA files puts a vet in a special category under federal regulations.
Normally a veteran's "lay testimony" about traumatizing events — or stressors — is not considered proof when applying for disability with the Veterans Benefits Administration, or VBA, the agency's claims arm. However, the regulations add: "If the evidence establishes that the veteran was a prisoner-of-war ... the veteran's lay testimony alone may establish the occurrence of the claimed in-service stressor."
So, if a veteran told a VA psychiatrist that he had been a POW, and that story, true or not, formed the basis of the doctor's post-traumatic stress disorder diagnosis, what does that mean?
"I would probably accept the paperwork," says Richard Allen of Wichita, Kan., who retired from the VBA in January after 25 years as a claims specialist.
"They're home free if they're a confirmed POW," says Allen, himself a Vietnam-era Army veteran. "We don't ask any other questions as far as verification of stressors."
POWs are exempt from copays for VA inpatient and outpatient care and medications. And POWs are entitled to an annual evaluation at the Robert E. Mitchell Center for Prisoner of War Studies in Pensacola, Fla., travel and other expenses paid. That applies only to those on the Defense list, says Dr. Robert E. Hain, executive director of the Navy-run facility.
"That's essentially the gold standard," says Hain, a retired Navy captain.
Many states offer POWs free parking at public facilities, property tax exemptions and a waiver of vehicle registration fees. That can mean hundreds of dollars saved when buying a car and hundreds more in annual renewals with POW tags.
All it takes is a letter from a VA facility, which may or may not have verified the veteran's story.
The P.O.W. Network says most phonies are just braggarts puffing at the local Kiwanis luncheon or preening for women in bars, but many have received significant benefits while trading off their borrowed valor.
Edward Lee Daily of Clarksville, Tenn., collected more than $412,000 in disability and medical benefits over 15 years before being exposed.
Daily, who spent most of the Korean war as a mechanic and clerk, far from the front, took advantage of a fire that destroyed documents at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis. He forged paperwork not only to show he was a POW, but that he'd been wounded by shrapnel and given a battlefield promotion to first lieutenant.
Daily pleaded guilty in 2002 and was sentenced to 21 months in prison and ordered to pay restitution. After years of garnishing his monthly Social Security check, the government has recouped just $7,000. (Daily also gave fabricated information to the AP in interviews for an unrelated story in 1999.)
VA's Jemison says the Veterans Health Administration, the agency's medical arm, confirms a veteran's POW status using DoD records.
But that doesn't explain people like Daily or John Karl Lee, of El Paso, Texas.
Lee's POW tale is set at the time of the Gulf War in 1991. The Army reservist claimed in interviews that he and two comrades were taken while fighting was raging, and only after emptying their M-16s at the pursuing Iraqis.
"We were beaten with the butt of their AK-47s," he told El Paso Inc. in 2002. "Sometimes in the leg, head, even the groin."
The truth was that he and the other two were sightseeing in Kuwait after the war had ended, and their vehicle strayed into Iraq. They were arrested by Iraqi authorities and held for three days at a hotel, where they were fed well, his comrades later said.
"I was held against my will," Lee told the AP in a recent interview.
Lee told AP he received a VA medical card identifying him as a former prisoner. (His documentation included an application to the VBA for POW status.) For a time, he received full disability payments from the U.S. Labor Department, supposedly for injuries and PTSD from his three weeks — not days — in captivity.
When authorities discovered Lee was running a business, they charged him with fraud and making false statements. He was convicted and ordered to pay nearly $230,000 in restitution and fines.
Lee is now applying to have some VA benefits reinstated.
The phenomenon of the fake POW is nothing new — frauds have been outed from conflicts going back at least to World War II. And it's not limited just to men.
When the landmark National Vietnam Veteran Readjustment Study came out in 1988, four of the 427 female veterans surveyed attributed their stress to their time as POWs. That's impossible, says B.G. "Jug" Burkett, co-author of the book, "Stolen Valor: How the Vietnam Generation was Robbed of its Heroes and its History."
"There just plain weren't any," says Burkett, himself an Army officer in Vietnam.
Why doesn't VA check lists?
Under federal law, only the secretary of defense — through the heads of the various military service branches — is authorized to declare someone a prisoner of war — "and until the service reports a person as a POW, then he is not one," says Larry Greer.
Greer is a spokesman for the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office, which maintains a database of officially recognized POWs for most wars. A separate list for the Vietnam War is called Personnel Missing — Southeast Asia, or PMSEA.
Critics say the VA could use the lists, which are accessible online, to identify red-flag cases, but doesn't.
Until last week, the VA had claimed on its Web site that it also had the authority to confer POW status. But after the AP pointed out the federal law, that language was struck "in light of your observations," spokesman Jemison says.
Mike McGrath, historian and past president of Nam-POWs, Inc., which represents most Vietnam war prisoners, has sent letters to two successive VA secretaries offering to compare the Defense list with the VBA's list of POW beneficiaries.
McGrath, a retired Navy captain who was shot down over North Vietnam in 1967 and was not repatriated until 1973, says he was either ignored or told that the VA's computers simply couldn't isolate the names of POWs who were receiving disability money.
"In one hour I could give the list ... back to them (and say) these are the people you should look at as possible errors or, in extreme cases, as possible fraud," says McGrath, who once exposed a phony who not only had a POW card but was working as a trauma counselor for the VA in Denver. "The bureaucracy is so huge that no one has the time or interest to give a damn."
The VBA, citing the federal Privacy Act, refused AP's requests to even confirm whether a particular beneficiary is listed as a POW in its files.
The P.O.W. Network, made up of veterans and civilians, says it has copies of VA documents conferring POW status on people who never even served in the military. When confronted, some have claimed their names aren't on the Defense list because they were on a secret, CIA-sponsored mission that remains classified, but that doesn't wash.
While a person's military record might not say what he or she was doing when captured, it would still reflect the captivity, McGrath says — whether in a notation in a muster roll or a telegram to family back in the States. Even people who were captured and freed the same day are included on the DPMO-PMSEA lists.
"If a man's missing from a unit in any type of action, a whole series of things happen that start documentation that still exists today," he says. "The military is responsible for a human being."
Records easy to fake
It's surprisingly easy to fake a record of being a war prisoner.
P.O.W. Network co-founder Mary Schantag has purchased stacks of surplus military separation forms on the Internet, where she says everything someone would need to create his own service file is available.
"These guys are way too good at it," says Schantag, who formed the group with her husband, Chuck. "And the people at the VA are not good enough at it."
Take the case of retired Army Command Sgt. Maj. Richard Barr Cayton.
For years, the Texan told stories about how he and another member of his Ranger squad were taken prisoner during a January 1971 firefight in Vietnam. Cayton told of regaining consciousness and finding his arms tied to a branch across his shoulders, and of being marched from village to village with a leash around his neck as a propaganda tool.
"They did degrading, inhumane things to us," he told a Texas newspaper, adding that finally, after 20 days in captivity, he managed to escape.
It was all a lie. Records from the National Archives show that Cayton was accounted for during the entire period he cited — Jan. 1-21 — and that no one from his unit was ever taken prisoner. In fact, Cayton received a Silver Star medal for an action that occurred on Jan. 10, 1971, midway through his alleged captivity.
A falsified copy of an official form was placed in his file at the St. Louis repository, the source to which all other agencies turn for documentation of a veteran's service. "'PRISONER OF WAR, CO G, 75TH INF (ABN RGR), VIETNAM, 710101-710121,'" the forged document says.
After years of prodding by P.O.W. Network members, the Army's Criminal Investigation Command looked into Cayton's case. In the end, Cayton was placed in a federal pretrial diversion program and ordered to correct his records in St. Louis.
However, when the AP filed a Freedom of Information Act request recently for Cayton's file, the documents that came back appeared unchanged — still reflecting 20 days in captivity.
Cayton did not respond to AP calls seeking comment, but in a letter to the Schantags, he apologized "if my statements and representations have misled or offended any of my fellow service members, past and present."
The VA refused to comment on the case. But in response to the Army's inquiry, the agency maintained that Cayton, as a combat veteran, "would have received the same amount of compensation without claiming he was a POW, and accordingly there was no loss to the U.S. Government."
Veterans who served with Cayton have their own views.
He was a "glory seeker" who exaggerated other exploits, too, says then-Capt. Mark Hansen, who regrets recommending Cayton for the Silver Star.
Chuck Ford, who was in Cayton's unit and says there was no enemy contact on the day for which Cayton received that decoration, says, "It infuriates me. And he's drawing money for this? He's stealing from other soldiers?"
Claims difficult to verify
Greer of DoD's POW/Missing Office says cases like this illustrate the painstaking research involved in verifying someone's POW status. It often requires checking unit rosters, roll calls, payroll records and after-action reports, something for which the VA has neither the personnel nor the mandate.
"On behalf of the United States government and the taxpayer, I would do a lot of verifying before I would lay the POW label on him," says Greer.
The VA is under fire for a huge backlog in disability applications, which the agency says is partly due to its own diligent fact-checking. Veterans groups have sued the agency, saying the long wait and VA's questions have driven some deserving vets to suicide. On Friday, President Obama announced a more efficient record system to ease delays in health care for wounded veterans.
While mindful of VA's challenges, McGrath of Nam-POWs says every dollar that goes to a phony is one that's not available for those who've earned it.
"I'm not a vigilante," McGrath says. "But it's just the right thing to do."
Burkett, the "Stolen Valor" author, says people who make up these stories are doing more than just taking money from fellow veterans.
"It's stealing from the dead," he says. "It's a form of sacrilege."