Uh-oh: POW benefit claimants exceed recorded POWs

One hopes there's a good explanation for this somewhere: According to this AP story, the number of people collecting VA benefits for being POWs exceeds -- by hundreds -- the number of actual POWs ever held (much less still alive). From the AP:

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 %u2014 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.

Are these people claiming POW status just to get benefits? That's possible. But I suspect the motive is often stranger -- a weird attraction to claiming falsifying elite and particularly trying military service. In research my story on PTSD and its diagnosis, for instance, I came across substantial literature showing that a lot of people -- including many who were never in military service -- make up and take pains to document military service that included secret behind-the-lines missions, being captured and tortured, and/or performing acts of extreme valor. The book Stolen Valor documents a stunning number of such cases in which the people collected important military medals and recognition. Others claim to have gotten them, and even procured fake medals on the black market, so as to hang the on their walls and make the medals part of their identity.

I'd hate to speculate on what motivates such claims, but it seems to me to go well beyond the desire to claim some monetary benefits. This is an elaborate fabrication of a sort of alter-ego, and alternate identity. Why -- from a psych view -- people indulge in such fabrication is a story I've been meaning to get to for a while now. But this fake-POW story, I've little doubt, has more to do with those complex psych motives than it does dollar benefits.

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By NoAstronomer (not verified) on 13 Apr 2009 #permalink

This isn't an issue I've given much prior thought to, so I could be way off base, but shouldn't we also consider the possibility that military officials under-report the actual number of prisoners in any given conflict?

It seems to me that there's a competing institutional motivation to list the least number of prisoners, or to declare this or that soldier's experience as "not a 'real' POW."

Though the military is not famous for being transparent, I can't see them underreporting POWs -- especially at this scale, which would be a 2:1 or 3:1 unreported:reported ratio -- because a) they really have to account for their soldiers, because people back home want to know where they are, and b) the political cost of underreporting them would be tremendous.

The other factor that argues against this is the plethora of well-documented cases of other false claims to military service and valor. We're not necessarily talking huge numbers overall. But there are clearly quite a few people who are drawn to this sort of posing. Do they pose to get the medals and benefits, or vice-versa? Don't know the answer -- it probably varies -- but it's an interesting question.

Thanks for your reply. I agree with your assessment. Like I said, I hadn't really thought it through.

I think a couple places to start looking for answers to your questions would be Munchausen syndrome and Mythomania. Neither one quite gets at the military experience question, but they seem related.

We're talking about a few hundred or so people among millions of veterans, not a huge percentage. But with this and your misdiagnosed PTSD article you seem to have some sort of issue with veterans. Perhaps you don't, but it sure hints towards that.

By kickerofelves (not verified) on 14 Apr 2009 #permalink

Isn't it also possible that veterans can get disability payments without having been a POW? I'm sure that this isn't the complete explanation, because I'm guessing the number of disabled veterans is MUCH larger than the number of surviving POWs. But maybe this is a paperwork problem.

By Laura Miller (not verified) on 16 Apr 2009 #permalink

Kicker of Elves: wouldn't it be reasonable to say that someone who's trying to identify which soldiers are at risk for PTSD and to expose those pretending to be POWs, Dobbs is a staunch defender of veterans?

I guess I fail to see where tolerating false POW claims is anti-veteran. More anti-asshole, right?

Since my return from service in Vietnam I have spent many years in the assistance of our Honored Brothers at Arms. Throughout this time I have encountered inumerable instances of false claims of service, heroic actions etc. Some of these claims come from actual members of the military who otherwise served honorably.

I have found in some instances claimants who falsify their service due to feelings of guilt for surviving when their Brothers had failed to return.

For the most part I have found that a majority of claimants enhance or fabricate service in a vain attempt to impress others or to further their careers with unearned respect. Many have carried these fabrications to the point of having to substantiate their claims rather than risk exposure and ridicule, thus necessitating an Official claim to hide their falsehoods.

With the inability of the government to adequately police such claims it is left to the actual veterans of combat to expose these "posers".

Any discovery of falsehood should be immediately and publicly denounced without regard to the individuals involved. To do otherwise dishonors those who actually served.

By Jerry Kelly (not verified) on 26 Apr 2009 #permalink