Neuron Culture

POWs who weren’t, cont’d

A few weeks ago, when I posted that “Uh-oh: POW benefit claimants exceed recorded POWs, one reader wrote saying the post made her wonder whether I have “a problem with veterans.” As one reader noted, a concern with bogus POWs suggests I have a problem with — well, bogus POWs. Should it not bother us when people masquerading as POWs are collecting benefits and kudos and sympathies they didn’t earn — and which others earned through rather excruciating means?

Now it’s bothered a couple members of Congress who served in the military, as the press release from Rep. Mike Coffman, R-CO, describes.

(WASHINGTON, D.C.) – Two U.S. Representatives, who are both combat veterans, sent a joint letter today to Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki asking him to investigate allegations of fraudulent Prisoner-Of-War (POW) status claims that have been reported recently in the media. The letter was sent by U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colorado), who served with the U.S. Marine Corps in the first Gulf War and recently in Iraq, and Rep. Jim Marshall (D-GA), who served in Vietnam as an Army Airborne Ranger reconnaissance platoon sergeant earning two Bronze Stars and a Purple Heart.

According to a recent media report, the Department of Veterans Affairs is paying disability benefits to 286 service members claiming they were held as prisoners of war during the first Gulf War, but the Department of Defense is only aware of 21 POWs. The media reports equally disturbing figures for Vietnam POWs: there are only 662 officially recognized U.S. prisoners of war from that conflict, but 966 alleged Vietnam POWs are getting disability payments.

The letter to Eric Shinseki, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, says “We would expect that your Department would be extremely interested in investigating these allegations of fraud as soon as possible. We would appreciate hearing from you with your progress in this matter.”

The movements and policies of the VA are often confusing and difficult to understand. It helps if you remember that it’s the biggest single operation in the entire government; next to it, GM’s operations, politics, and burdens are nothing; and the difficulty of doing something that makes perfect sense, but that goes against SOP, tradition, or the interests of well-entrenched interest groups can hardly be overstated. Finally, any target that big — with pockets that deep, programs that numerous, a workload that chaotic — can act like a magnet for people willing to abuse the public trust and manipulate our tendency to honor military service without question. “The man was a POW! Isn’t that enough that he shouldn’t have to prove it?” That’s the response that it appears several hundred con-men are counting on.

The 286 people collecting benefits as POWs from the Gulf War (when the DOD has records of only 21 taken prisoner) is particularly mind-blowing.

Shinseki’s got his work cut out for him.