(Washington, D.C.) - Today at a hearing of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, Senator Patty Murray (D-Wash) discussed her legislation to help former American Prisoners of War (POWs).
Murray's remarks follow:
Mr. Chairman, thank you for holding this hearing. I'm a cosponsor of many of the bills before the committee today, but I'd like to highlight one of them in particular, S. 517, the Francis W. Agnes Ex-Prisoner of War Benefits Act of 2003.
This bill will correct a glaring injustice facing some former American prisoners of war, and it will reaffirm our commitment to all those Americans who were held in captivity while fighting for our freedom. We know that those who have been prisoners of war often suffer medical problems many years later as a result of their captivity under inhumane conditions.
Unfortunately, it took a long time for many ex-POWs to get the help they need and deserve. In 1981, Congress began addressing this problem. It established certain medical conditions as 'presumptive' for POWs. But it required a very high level of research certainty – 95 percent – before veterans could get benefits based on their medical problems. As a result, many health problems common in POWs were – and still are – denied coverage.
Congress has taken some steps to fix this. It changed the standard for veterans of some conflicts. For example, Vietnam veterans who were exposed to herbicides, and Gulf War veterans who were exposed to unknown factors, now get the help they need.
Unfortunately, Congress never fixed this problem for veterans of the Korean Conflict and World War II.
So today, these brave former POWs are facing medical conditions because of their captivity – but they are being held to a much higher standard for care than veterans of other conflicts. It's not fair, and my bill will fix that glaring injustice.
I want to say a word about the veterans who are currently punished by the status quo.
Today, WWII and Korean Conflict POWs are dying at a rate of 10 veterans a day. 85,000 (70%) have already died in the 50 years since these wars; most without receiving any disability benefits.
I'm certainly not the only person who"s working to correct this problem.
The VA POW Advisory Committee -- which was created by Congress in 1981 -- has stated it is blatantly wrong to hold WWII and Korean Conflict POWs to a different and more stringent standard than Vietnam and Gulf War veterans. It has recommended that all POWs be held to the same medical presumption standards.
The proposed legislation, S. 517, The Prisoner of War Benefits Act of 2004, will help correct the injustice facing our ex-POWs of WWII and the Korean Conflict.
First, it would add five additional medical conditions to the presumptive list.
Second, it would eliminate the minimum-time-held as POW requirement to qualify for benefits.
Finally, this legislation is complimentary to legislation introduced in the House of Representatives by Congressman Michael Bilirakis, HR 348.
Here in the Senate, our bill is endorsed by the American Ex-Prisoners of War.
I also want the Committee to know that I named this bill after a great champion for veterans and particularly for our former POW’s.
Fran Agnes survived as a prisoner of war for three and a half years. He was a survivor of the Baatan Death March and two POW camps in the Philippines. Fran Agnes lived a life of service to his family, to his fellow veterans and to his community.
In all the time Fran and I spent together, he never asked me to do anything for himself. It was always things for other veterans and their families. He asked me to help the widows of our veterans. He asked me to support the POW's lawsuit against the Japanese companies that profited from slave labor during World War II. He would ask about helping another veteran who might be having a problem with the VA.
On February 9, 2003 Fran passed away and was laid to rest in the Tahoma National Cemetery with full military honors.
Mr. Chairman, passing S.517 will be a fitting tribute to Fran Agnes and all the other thousands of veterans who endured as prisoners of war and sacrificed for our liberty and freedom. It's the right thing to do for those who have sacrificed their liberty to protect our country.