This past Thursday marked the 67th anniversary of the fall of Bataan. After four months of bitter fighting against the invading Japanese, U.S. forces on the Philippines peninsula--short of food, ammunition and medicine, and with no hope of relief--surrendered to the enemy. It was the largest capitulation of American military forces in history; over the days that followed, more than 11,000 American troops marched into the hell of Japanese prison camp.
Sadly, many of them did not survive captivity. As detailed in countless books, including Hampton Sides' superb Ghost Soldiers (2001), thousands of our POWs perished at camps like Cabanatuan from disease, malnutrition and torture. Those who died--and those who made it back--are genuine American heroes, as are those held prisoner in subsequent conflicts.
At the other end of the spectrum, you'll find men like Edward Daily and retired Army Command Sergeant Major Richard Barr Clayton. Daily, a resident of Clarksville, Tennessee, identified himself as a POW from the Korean War, and collected more than $400,000 in benefits from the Veteran's Administration. Clayton, who lived in Texas after his military career, made similar claims about service in Vietnam and also received VA payments, although the amount he received has not been disclosed.
But there was only one problem; Daily and Clayton were frauds. While both served, there is no record of them being held prisoner by the enemy. In fact, Daily should be considered a double fraud. Readers of this blog will remember him as one of the Associated Press's "sources" on a series of 1999 reports, detailing an alleged massacre of civilians at a place called No Gun Ri during the early stages of the Korean War. Daily told the AP (among other things) that he fired into a crowd of civilians at No Gun Ri, received a battlefield commission and was captured by the North Koreans.
Research by an Army historian, Major Robert Bateman, proved that Daily didn't join the unit until the following year, and spent most of his time as a mechanic and clerk, well behind the front lines. For his troubles, Bateman was vilified by the wire service, although his own book on No Gun Ri won the Colby Prize for military history in 2004. While acknowledging problems with its sources, the AP has refused to return the Pulitzer it received for reporting on the massacre.
To its credit, the Associated Press is (finally) on the case of phony POWs like Daily and Clayton. In a long article published today, AP writer Allen Breed details the surprising number of fraudulent POW benefits being paid by the VA. According to information released by the agency, there are hundreds of veterans who have falsely claimed prisoner of war status and are receiving benefits.
Being for former POW doesn't entitle you to a bigger benefit check than other veterans but, as Mr. Breed reports, it does offer a leg up in attaining a disability determination. A former service member who is 100% disabled can earn more than $35,000 a year in tax-free VA benefits plus Social Security disability payments, free health care and various state incentives, ranging from property tax exemptions to waivers on vehicle tags.
And all it takes is a letter from the VA, which (as the AP notes) doesn't always bother to verify the veteran's claim.
In fact, the agency sometimes bases eligibility solely on the individual's testimony. Never mind that the Pentagon maintains extensive records on POWs from past conflicts, and the VA could easily verify claims against that database. By refusing to take that simple step, the Veteran's Administration has allowed hundreds of phonies to worm their way into the benefits system, and paid millions in fraudulent claims.
How many more Ed Dailys are out there? More than you might imagine. The Pentagon says there are only 21 surviving POWs from the first Persian Gulf War, but the VA is paying benefits to at least 286 veterans who claim they were held by the enemy in that conflict. Similarly, Defense Department rolls show only 560 living POWs from Vietnam, but the VA is providing monthly benefits to 966 individuals who claim that status, including four women veterans. As you might have guessed, there were no American female POWs in that war.
While the VA claims its works with the Pentagon to confirm prisoner-of-war claims, numbers obtained by the AP suggest otherwise. The agency has also refused offers of assistance from POW and veteran's groups. One of those organizations, the POW Network, claims to have "outed" more than 2,000 phonies who claimed prisoner of war status. There is no word on how many of those individuals were receiving VA and other government benefits.
The Veteran's Administration has long been faulted for lengthy delays in awarding benefits for former service members. In response, the agency claims that it takes time to verify claims and make the proper determination. But apparently, it's not particularly hard to doctor--or make up--a service record that includes POW status and get the VA to go along.
As R.G. Burkett, the author of Stolen Valor (and one of the first writers to conduct a serious expose of military phonies), it's a shameful example of sacrilege--stealing from the nation's war dead, including all those POWs who never made it home.
Like the brave men who passed into history on that infamous march from Bataan.