By Peter S. Gaytan
As a veteran, you are entitled to certain benefits and services. If you are also a former Prisoner-of-War, you are eligible for additional benefits including medical care in VA hospitals and disability compensation for injuries and disease presumed to be cause by your interment. Some states offer additional benefits, large and small, to former POWs. For example, California extends to qualified Disabled War Veterans or Prisoners of War a pass for a one-time fee of $3.50 which entitles the holder to the use of all basic State Park System operated facilities, at no further charge.
Remember: These benefits are not charity. You have earned them and should take full advantage of benefits and services to which you are entitled. You should pursue this claim both for yourself, but also for your spouse. The compensation will pass on to her.
Congress defines a prisoner of war as a person who, while serving on active military, naval, or air service, was forcibly detained by an enemy government or a hostile force, during a period of war or in situations comparable to war. For some presumed conditions, there is a requirement that the POW was interned for at least 30 days. However, the individual would still be considered a POW if he were held for less time. Nearly a third of the Americans held prisoner in the last five conflicts are now living. The physical hardships and psychological stress endured by POWs have life-long ramifications.
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, 142,246 Americans were captured and interned during World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, the Somalia and Kosovo conflicts, and Operation Iraqi Freedom. As you can see, POW status is conferred on servicemembers held captive by enemy government not only when war has been formally declared, such as World War I and World War II, but also in “situations comparable to war,” such as Kosovo. Somalia, and the current Global War on Terrorism. However, you are not considered a POW if you were held hostage by a terrorist or detained by a government with which the United States is not engaged actively in armed conflict. If you have been interned during your service, but have questions as to your status, consult with a Veterans Service Organization to clarify your rights.
POW coordinators are assigned to each VA regional office and medical center. Veterans Service Organizations, both the general ones and those specifically for former Prisoners of War, have service officers who have been trained to advocate for veterans and specifically, to assist former POWs with their claims.
Medical Evaluation of Former POWs
If you are a former POW, you are enrolled in Priority Group 3 and receive special priority for VA health-care even if your illness is not formally associated with your service. You are also exempt from co-payments for inpatient and outpatient medical care and medications, but are responsible for the same co-pay rules for extended care.
As of August 2006, 16,884 former POW’s were receiving compensation benefits from the VA, with 13,000 rated at 100% disabled.
Usually proving that your injury or disease is service-connected is a critical element of the VA compensation process. Detailed medical records are required to establish the connection between service and injury.
But the VA recognizes that military medical records do not cover the period of captivity for former POWs so it has developed the concept of presumptive basis. That means that the VA assumes that the disease or injury in the present is a result of captivity or internment in the past if any of the following disabilities are found at any time after service at a compensable level (at least 10 percent disabling). Remember: Symptoms may show up years after captivity, but may still be considered related to captivity.
For POWs detained for 30 days or more, the conditions that meet the eligibility requirements for presumptive basis include: vitamin deficiency diseases such as beriberi and pellagra, chronic dysentery, helminthiasis, malnutrition, miscellaneous nutritional deficiencies, residuals of frostbite, post-traumatic osteoarthritis, peripheral neuropathy, irritable bowel syndrome, peptic ulcer disease, or ischemic heart disease (if there was localized edema during captivity). Several diseases are presumptively associated with captivity and do not require meeting the 30-day captivity limit: psychosis, any anxiety state, dysthymic disorders, cold injury, post-traumatic arthritis, strokes, and common heart diseases.
Although there is a “presumptive basis” of connection between disability and captivity, the VA retains the right to determine the level of disability. The amount of disability compensation you receive is based on your disability rating by the VA Rating board. Your compensation may be increased or affected by the following factors.
Ø If you are rated 30 percent or more disabled, you qualify for additional allowance for your dependents.
Ø If you are rated 100% disabled, your dependents may also qualify for educational assistance.
Ø If you were rated 100% disabled for 10 years prior to your death (or if you die as the result of service-connected disabilities), your spouse is eligible for dependency and indemnity compensation.
The length of your captivity also affects your eligibility for other benefits. For example, if you were held for more than 90 days, you are eligible for any needed dental treatment. If you were held for less than 90 days, then you are only eligible for service-connected, noncompensable (e.g., not compensated for) dental conditions.
Presenting a Claim
Use a service officer from a Veterans Service Organization to help you file a claim VA Form 21-526 Veterans Application for Compensation and/or Pension for POW benefits. There is no charge for the assistance. It’s a complicated form. The claim must clearly demonstrate how some of the 20-plus POW presumptives apply to your case. Even if the captivity was more than 25 years ago, the circumstances of your imprisonment may be affecting your health today. For example, most prisoners of war are physically abused and often times beaten. The injuries may heal, but there can lasting disabling effects that may not develop until years later such as post-traumatic osteoarthritis.
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