If you or a loved one is a former POW, you may find yourself asking various questions like including “Do POWs get VA disability?” “Do POWs get back pay?” and “What VA benefits do POWs get?”
In this article about VA disability for POWs:
Prisoners of war (POWs) are eligible for a number of VA benefits, none of which can repay them for what they endured during their captivity, of course. However, these programs can attempt to help POWs transition and live a healthy life with healthcare and disability benefits. Moreover, this article addresses issues relating to POW pensions and presumptive service connections for certain disabilities suffered by POWs including PTSD.
Do POWs Receive Disability Benefits?
The short answer is Yes, Prisoners of War receive the same disability benefits as other veterans. However, POWs have reduced barriers for establishing disability claims. This reduced standard exists for two primary reasons. First, medical records during a POW’s captivity are, in most cases, non-existent. Second, the reduced standard reflects the acknowledgment that some disabling conditions might not manifest themselves until years after the POW is released and discharged from service.
The VA’s disability claim process requires you to prove three elements for a successful disability claim:
- You served on active duty, active duty training, or inactive duty training.
- You have a disability for which a disability rating can be assigned.
- Your disability is connected to your military service.
For POWs, the second and third elements are collapsed into a single claim for certain POW-related conditions. Specifically, once POWs establish a disability from the list of POW-related conditions with at least a 10% disability rating, it is presumed that the disability is connected to the POW’s military service.
This presumption is important for a few reasons. First, this presumption applies regardless of when the disability manifests. For non-POWs, a service connection must be established by showing that the disability manifested or worsened during service or, for chronic illnesses, manifested within one year after discharge. For POWs, on the other hand, service connection is presumed regardless of when the disability manifests, even if it occurs 20 years after discharge.
Second, this presumption allows you to apply for disability benefits without producing medical records from your time in service. This may substantially lighten the burden of supporting a disability claim years after discharge and speed the process of obtaining a decision on it.
The conditions change from time to time and generally fall into a few broad categories:
- physical trauma
- mental and emotional trauma
- nutritional deficiencies and gastrointestinal disorders
- nervous system and cardiovascular problems
- environment-induced trauma.
Since the list of presumptive conditions for POWs changes periodically, you may wish to consult the VA’s website and a VA benefits attorney before filing a claim to see if your disability fits into any of the presumptions.
The VA categorizes conditions based on the duration of captivity, with some conditions applying to all POWs and others applying to those who were held captive for 30 days or more. The primary distinction between the two categories is that POWs held captive for 30 days or more are allowed a presumption that digestive and nutritional disorders are related to their service. This is logical given that POWs held for 30 days or longer would be more likely to suffer from starvation or malnutrition while in captivity.
Presently, the list of disabilities presumed to arise from a POW’s service, regardless of the POW’s time in captivity, include:
- Osteoporosis (with certain limitations)
- Frostbite and frostbite-related tissue damage
- Osteoarthritis due to injury
- Stroke and stroke-related problems (including memory loss, loss of speech, or weakness in an extremity)
- Hypertensive vascular disease, hypertensive heart disease, and hypertension-related problems
- Neuropsychiatric condition
- Dysthymic disorder
- Anxiety states (including PTSD)
The list of disabilities presumed to arise from a POW’s service, when the POW was held for at least 30 days include all of the preceding, as well as:
- Osteoporosis (with certain limitations)
- Peripheral neuropathy, except where directly related to an illness caused by an infection
- Peptic ulcer disease
- Chronic dysentery
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Cirrhosis of the liver
- Nutritional deficiency, including avitaminosis, beriberi (including beriberi heart disease), malnutrition (including optic atrophy connected to malnutrition), and pellagra
How Do POWs Receive Disability Benefits?
When a POW files a disability claim, it is processed like any other claim except that if the disability arises from the list and is at least 10% disabling, no evidence of a connection between the service and the disability is required. However, looking at the opposite side of the coin, this means that even though you are a POW, you must still submit evidence of a diagnosis of a listed condition and proof that the listed condition is at least 10% disabling.
This means that to file a disability claim, you will need a diagnosis from a doctor, either in the VA medical system or in private practice, for the claimed disability. If the medical records come from a VA doctor, you can request the VA to obtain the records for you. If the medical records are from a private doctor, you can request the VA obtain the records from your doctor or you can obtain the records from your doctor and forward them to the VA.
The claim must also include evidence of the extent to which the disability affects your life. This primarily, but not exclusively, goes to your ability to work. Disability benefits are supposed to compensate you for your inability to work that resulted from your service in the military. Your service-connected disability (whether it is presumed to be connected to your service or is proven to be connected to your service) is assigned a disability rating based on how much it disrupts your efficiency in your work. For example, if arthritis in your shoulder causes you to work at only 70% of your expected efficiency, your disability rating is 30%.
Certain disability ratings are fixed according to a schedule used by the VA. Other ratings are set by the VA adjudicator assigned to your claim. You are allowed several options for review if you disagree with the VA disability rating set by the adjudicator.
When preparing your claim for disability, you should keep in mind that disability ratings are calculated according to VA math. If your claim for a disability includes multiple conditions, you will not be able to simply add the disability ratings of each separate condition. A VA attorney may be able to answer any questions you have about VA math and what it means to your disability claim.
Moreover, if your disability is not included on the list of those presumed to be service-connected, you must submit evidence showing that the disability is connected to your service. For example, the chronic illness rheumatoid arthritis is not included on the list of disabilities presumed to be connected to a POW’s service. If you suffer from rheumatoid arthritis, you would need to show that the condition started “coincident” with your service, was a pre-existing condition when you entered service, and worsened during your time in the military or arose within one year after discharge. This evidence must be submitted even if you are a POW.
Filing Your Disability Claim
VA claims may be filed typically as a standard disability claim or a fully developed disability claim. In a standard disability claim, you rely on the VA to assemble the documents relating to your claim from your service branch, the VA, and your private doctor, if you have one. Because you rely on the VA to collect the documents, it can take longer for the VA to process your claim. Moreover, it is always possible that the VA evaluates your claim based on incorrect documents, such as documents for a different service member, or without documents that you would have wanted to be considered, such as your private doctor’s medical records.
In a fully developed disability claim, you collect the documents for the VA and forward them with your claim application. You also certify that you have collected everything necessary for the VA to render a decision on your claim. When you file a fully developed disability claim, you will typically include your service records, medical records from during your service, medical records from the VA, and medical records from your private doctor. Because a fully developed disability claim contains all the records necessary to render a decision, the VA usually processes them faster than standard disability claims. If your application or the underlying documentation is incomplete, the VA will convert your fully developed disability claim into a standard claim.
What Benefits Do POWs Get for PTSD?
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is of particular concern among POWs since this anxiety disorder can affect daily life for years or decades after the traumatic event. These anxiety disorders can affect a former POW’s ability to work or even tend to his or her daily needs. Worse yet, PTSD can lead to other problems, such as substance abuse, depression, and other physical, emotional, and mental disorders. The VA’s list of conditions presumed to be service-connected specifically includes PTSD regardless of the time held in captivity.
Interestingly, PTSD is listed as an example of the broader category of disabilities referred to as “anxiety states.” Therefore, if you are a POW who suffers from an anxiety disorder that does not precisely conform to a PTSD diagnosis, you may still be eligible for the service-connection presumption. If you have questions about the contours of the term “anxiety states” as applied by the VA, you may benefit from a consultation with a VA lawyer.
In this regard, the VA can be bureaucratic regarding the categorizations of disabilities. By filing under a broader category of “anxiety states” as permitted on the list of presumed service-connected disabilities, you may be able to reduce the risk of a rejected claim if your diagnosis does not fit squarely into the VA’s definition of PTSD.
PTSD and other anxiety states are difficult for the VA to rate and can be prone to under-rating. The VA rates each of the PTSD symptoms as 10%, 30%, 50%, 70%, or 100% disabling and creates an overall PTSD personal trauma rating. This overall rating often represents a combination of the individual ratings.
However, this can be a situation where VA math can work in your favor. A POW who has a rating of 50% for certain symptoms is likely unable to hold down a steady job, even if he or she has a 10% rating for other symptoms. You or your VA benefits attorney may be able to argue that you are entitled to a higher disability rating due to any higher-rated symptoms.
What Compensation Benefits Do POWs Recieve?
As a first matter, POWs receive back pay that accrued during their period of captivity. They were on active duty, possibly in a combat zone, and are entitled to all the pay that they earned during that time regardless of their captive status.
Similarly, a POW is entitled to the same pension benefits as any other service member. These pension benefits depend on the age of the veteran, the veteran’s living situation, dependents, and the veteran’s income. Likewise, as a POW, you have the same insurance, education, home loan, vocational rehabilitation, and burial benefits as all veterans.
A POW’s survivors, regardless of whether the POW died in captivity or died after release, are entitled to the same dependent and indemnity compensation (DIC) as any other veteran’s survivors. This compensation is paid to a POW’s survivors if the POW died while on active duty, died of a service-connected disability, or died after being rated totally disabled for a certain period of time prior to the POW’s death (regardless of the cause of death). This benefit pays a monthly allowance to the spouse, children, or parents of veterans who pass away under these conditions. A POW’s survivors are also eligible for other survivor benefits provided to veterans, including a POW’s pension, burial benefits, education and training, home loan guaranty, and health care.
What Health Care Benefits Do POWs Receive?
POWs receive the same health care benefits as other service members and veterans. However, they may receive priority over other veterans at VA facilities. POWs who have a service-connected disability are eligible for VA hospital, nursing home, and outpatient treatment. This is true regardless of whether the service-connected disability is from the list of conditions presumed to be service-connected or another disability that the POW proved to be related to his or her service.
POWs who do not have a service-connected disability are eligible for VA hospital and nursing home care but are prioritized for outpatient care behind veterans with service-connected disabilities. POWs receive medications from VA pharmacies without any co-pay required. Lastly, POWs have health care coverage for dental care, as well as glasses, hearing aids, and prostheses.
POWs are entitled to legal presumptions for certain disabilities. A Woods and Woods VA Disability Lawyer can help you navigate the maze of VA disability claims regardless of where you live.