(Steve Helber ~ Associated Press)
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 said.
Being classified as a POW doesn't directly increase a veteran's disability check.
But a tale of torture and privation can influence whether a vet receives 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.
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 Department of Defense 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 said 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 Department of Defense's, despite 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."
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, full health coverage and significant educational benefits for himself and his family.
Federal regulations give a POW's testimony about traumatizing events more weight. So, if a veteran told a VA psychiatrist 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?
"They're home free if they're a confirmed POW," said Richard Allen of Wichita, Kan., who retired from the VBA in January after 25 years as a claims specialist.
POWs are exempt from copays for VA inpatient and outpatient care and medications. Many states offer POWs free parking at public facilities, property tax exemptions and a waiver of vehicle registration fees, benefits worth hundreds or thousands of dollars a year.
The watchdog group 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.
VA's Jemison says the Veterans Health Administration, the agency's medical arm, confirms a veteran's POW status using Department of Defense 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.
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.
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.
He was convicted of fraud and making false statements, and ordered to pay nearly $230,000 in restitution and fines.
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.
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 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, McGrath says.
"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.
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.
"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.
Prodded 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 still reflected 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.
Greer of Department of Defense'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.
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.
B.G. "Jug" Burkett, co-author of the book, "Stolen Valor," 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."
AP Correspondent Alicia Caldwell in El Paso, Texas, contributed to this report.