Former POWs Urged to Apply for Benefits

Monday, October 20th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Department of Veterans Affairs is trying to find thousands of former prisoners of war who have never claimed disability benefits.

In radio, TV and newspaper appeals to run over the next year, the VA wants to send the message that former POWs are ``first of all very deserving and they need the support,'' said Walter H. Cox, a consultant to the department's advisory committee on former POWs.

``Of course all POWs are eligible'' for some degree of disability compensation, Cox said. ``They put themselves in harm's way to defend their country and we owe them.''

One such POW is Elvin Beemer.

Beemer tries not to dwell on the six months he spent in a German prisoner-of-war camp during World War II, but sometimes the memories come flooding back.

It was Christmas Eve, 1944. A British plane bombed the camp where he and other Americans were being held. ``There were arms and legs and everything else,'' he recalls. A day later, he helped bury the remains of 50 American officers.

Now 84, Beemer came out of the war relatively unscathed physically _ but with his memories. ``I don't even feel like my country owes me anything,'' he said. ``I left a third of my buddies over there in the cemetery.''

His stubborn humility _ typical among former POWs of his generation _ is something the VA must overcome as it tries to find thousands of former POWs who, like Beemer, never claimed disability benefits.

Besides regular veterans benefits, former POWs are compensated for health conditions presumed to be related to their internment and are exempt from health care co-payments. Monthly checks range from $103 to $2,163, depending on the degree of disability. Former POWs also get free dental treatment if their captivity lasted more than 90 days.

The VA estimates that nearly 40,000 ex-POWs are still living, about 60 percent of whom receive disability compensation. The majority served during World War II, and their average age is 82.

``We want to turn over every rock to locate as many of these people as possible,'' Cox said. ``It's almost like a last chance. They're dying ... at least 10 a day.''

As part of its appeal, the VA is telling reluctant POWs to apply for the sake of their spouses, who may be eligible for benefits if they die.

Les Jackson, a spokesman for the American Ex-Prisoners of War, welcomed the agency's effort, though he said time is running out.

``We've been interested in a so-called outreach program for many years,'' he said. ``When you're talking to the third-largest bureaucracy in the city, it takes some time.''

Beemer, an Army staff sergeant during the war, waited until late last month to apply for disability benefits. He said he wouldn't have bothered either if a national service officer _ a volunteer who helps veterans navigate the VA bureaucracy _ hadn't visited his home in Bedford, Iowa, and urged him to file a claim.

``The reason I don't expect anything is that I'm not a pauper,'' he said. ``My wife and I live pretty well.''

He's also in relatively good health despite Type II diabetes and the loss of 70 percent of his hearing. ``I can't blame anything that's the matter with me on my service,'' Beemer said.

The VA may see otherwise. In the past decade, the department has vastly expanded the number of diseases and conditions it presumes to be connected to military service and captivity _ from heart disease to the most recent addition, cirrhosis of the liver. Many of the conditions considered service-connected may not show up until decades after a POW returns home.

Despite the VA's broadbased effort, some former POWs may remain skeptical, feeling they were ignored or pushed around by the bureaucracy when they returned from military service, Jackson said. Others, he said, have kept their troubles bottled up for years and may be reluctant to seek help.

Some never realized that the list of disabling conditions had been expanded.

Herbert Mike Sheaner, 79, of Dallas, suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and circulation problems related to severe frostbite during his German internment. He was first classified as 40 percent disabled and then bumped down to 10 percent.

He reapplied after he was told by the VA that he might be eligible for increased benefits. Today he is rated 100 percent disabled.

``We never wanted anything,'' he said. ``There are still a lot of (former POWs) who don't know or don't care'' about the benefits they could be getting.

Former POWs or their family members can find out about disability benefits by calling the VA toll-free at 1-800-827-1000.