The veteran community has been at the forefront of America’s attention due to a decade of continuous warfare, but some Eastern Michigan University scholars said many of their fellow service members are reaping benefits they did not earn.
EMU junior Ken Gergely served nearly 13 years in the Marines as infantryman and deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan seven times. While working as a veteran liaison for a technical school in Canton over the summer, he said many veterans would seek benefits they didn’t deserve.
“Maybe some are telling the truth, but a lot are just trying to get whatever they can,” Gergely said. “A lot of people are claiming shit they probably don’t deserve.”
When going through the separation process at the end of his enlistment, Gergely said many Marines were told by the civilians in charge of the process to document any disability or illness that was simple to falsify.
“They would encourage everyone, especially the younger kids, to claim stuff just because it was easy to fake,” Gergely said. “Things like loose bowels, sleep problems or whatever they would be able to get some money for.”
Many veterans were told how to exaggerate their health claims in order to get a higher disability rating which equates to more money in their monthly disability paycheck from Veteran Affairs, Gergely said.
“They aren’t telling you to lie, but they are coaching people on what to say to get more,” Gergely said.
EMU junior Andrew Crumb is a history major and was an infantryman in the Army from 2006-10. He said some veterans are not honest about their service-related injuries.
“I feel like there are a lot of people that falsify what they did over there and their medical claims,” Crumb said.
Crumb deployed to Iraq in 2007 for a year, while there his vehicle was struck by an improvised explosive device while conducting operations. He said some of his fellow soldiers rarely left the base but claimed to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder when they returned home.
“I wanted to be like, ‘How did you even see anything? Because you were only on like three patrols,’” Crumb said. “If they’re not lying about what they did, they’re lying about what happened to them.”
He also said it’s a difficult situation to regulate, because many veterans are in actual need of assistance to help cope with the mental trauma of war after they reach the home front.
“I understand people do have PTSD, and they do have real problems, but a lot of people will milk any system they can,” Crumb said. “There’s a lot of false identities. I don’t talk about the shit over there unless someone really, really wants to know.”
The legal penalties for filing false disability claims with the VA can be severe. The FBI’s website said three Kentucky men were convicted in 2009 of collecting benefits for service-related injuries that were fraudulently reported. The maximum potential penalty was 50 years in prison and a $1,250,000 fine for the charge.
The monthly paycheck from PTSD appears to be the reason for most false claims, but one report from The New York Times in January mentions other potential motives. Les Greene, president of the American Group Psychotherapy Association, said there could be other motivating factors for faking combat related trauma.
“The tragedy is that compensation doled out by government agencies can be readily taken advantage of not only by those who are motivated by monetary gain, but also by those who need to identify themselves as victims, and thus entitled to reparations,” Greene said.
Greene mentioned that real pain can be evoked from mental trauma, but false claims for PTSD can be concocted with relative ease.
“Falling to the floor after hearing a car backfire, throttling one’s wife in bed because of the reenactment of some nightmare and sitting with one’s back to the wall in restaurants to avoid a surprise attack are some of the more frequently expressed but doubtful complaints I have heard over the years,” Greene said.
But, not all prior-service members have witnessed the veteran benefits system being scammed.
“I’ve heard of it happening a lot, but personally I don’t know anybody,” said EMU junior and social work major Ben Melton. He served eight years in the army as a healthcare specialist and deployed to Afghanistan for nearly a year in 2012.
“I think the vast majority of people are going and getting help for legitimate reasons,” Melton said.
According to Melton, although false health reports are not always visible, there are still other facets of veteran healthcare that can be troublesome. There are roughly 500,000 veterans treated for PTSD every year at VA hospitals, but backlash is still common in combat units if a warfighter claims the disorder.
“There’s an unspoken rule that it’s a sign of weakness,” Melton said. “It’s viewed as a disability, but a disability that makes you look weak. It definitely has a negative stigma to it.”
Crumb echoed these sentiments.
“If you say you have PTSD, you’re definitely looked at as a pansy,” Crumb said.
Melton and Crumb, who served in different units, said they were told by superiors in their chains-of-command to avoid mentioning common symptoms of PTSD during the post-deployment health and risk assessment interviews with psychiatric professionals.
“My higher ups would say, ‘Don’t answer this question like that,’ if it had to do with PTSD,” Crumb said.
Melton also said it was frowned upon to give an answer that would assuredly bring further PTSD examinations that could potentially take someone out of training or make them non-deployable.
“I was coached, I guess you could say, about what to expect from the people asking about PTSD,” Melton said. “I was told to not mention sleep problems or things that affected me at work.”
Melton also stated the atmosphere was not always welcoming for those who were struggling with transitioning when they returned back to the states.
“They would tell you, ‘snap out of it,’ or ‘suck it up,’” Melton said. “You put your emotions in a box and close it, that’s what I felt it was like.”