Witness Testimony of Mr. Norman Bussel, American Ex-Prisoners of War, National Service Officer
Chairman Hall and Members of the Subcommittee, I am a National Service Officer accredited by the Department of Veterans Affairs and I represent the American Ex-Prisoners of War Organization. I am a volunteer and I assist veterans who wish to file claims for service-connected disabilities. As a member of a B-17 bomber crew, I bailed out of my burning plane seven seconds before it exploded over Berlin on April 29, 1944. Four members of my crew, as close to me as my brother, died on that mission and I became a POW for just over one year.
I want to thank you for this opportunity to bring to your attention legislation that is of vital importance to a small, but select group of American citizens: widows of former prisoners of war, in their eighties, and in need of assistance now. I was President of American Ex-Prisoners of War Service Foundation for four years and I'm pleased to be their spokesman.
POWs have always faced obstacles in filing claims because we had no medical records to document our wounds and illnesses upon capture, or while in prison camp. The subject of POW medical care is an oxymoron, since it was nonexistent unless your wounds were life-threatening and too often, even severe injuries were ignored, leading to unnecessary fatalities.
Then, about ten years ago, this inequity was addressed by the Congress and bills began to be passed acknowledging "presumptives." The premise was that certain illnesses suffered by POWs, even though undocumented, obviously resulted from their confinement and maltreatment, therefore, they must be presumed service-connected. For example, peripheral neuropathy can be a result of frostbite; irritable bowel syndrome can be caused by harsh diet; and PTSD can be provoked by the total barbed wire environment.
My statement will focus on H.R. 156 because its passage is so time-critical to these survivors of POWs who died on or before September 30, 1999. Prior to September 30, 1999, a POW must have died of a service-connected disability, or have been rated 100 percent disabled for a minimum of 10 years before his death in order for his spouse to qualify for dependency and indemnity compensation benefits (DIC).
When a bill lowering the qualification period from 10 years to one year became law, it did not retroactively include all those who should have become eligible under the new legislation: specifically survivors of POWs who died before September 30, 1999. Comprised almost entirely of POW widows with an average age of at least eighty, many of these unfortunate spouses are existing below the poverty level because under the present law, they are not eligible for DIC.
The purpose of H.R. 156 is: To amend title 38, United States Code, to provide for the payment of DIC to the survivors of former prisoners of war who died on or before September 30, 1999, under the same eligibility conditions as apply to payment of DIC to the survivors of former prisoners of war who die after that date.
In 2003, based on the number of survivors the VA reported were awarded DIC upon the death of a former POW spouse after September 30, 1999, CBO extrapolated that about 480 survivors would be eligible for compensation with the amendment of title 38. CBO further estimated that no more than one-third, or about 160 of those eligible, would apply for DIC.
In October 2004, then VA Secretary Anthony Principi was instrumental in adding two new POW presumptives to illnesses which the VA considered service-connected: heart disease and stroke. These illnesses were presumed to have resulted from the rigors of being a POW. Since heart disease ranks as the Number 1 killer in America, widows who were previously ineligible to receive DIC under the 10-year clause, now became eligible to file if their husbands died of heart disease or stroke. Today, four years later, that CBO estimated number of 160 widows has obviously dropped even more, since some of them would already be eligible under the new heart disease presumptive and some widows, of course, would have passed away in the meantime.
World War II veterans, at an average age of 84, are dying at the rate of about 1,200 per day. Of the nearly 140,000 POWs captured during World War II, only 20,000 are now alive. Actuarial tables predict that 80-year-old females have a life expectancy of almost nine years. Surviving spouses of POWs who died on, or before, September 30, 1999 must not be denied this entitlement which can make their lives easier. As a National Service Officer, I am saddened because a number of the widows I assist have had to resort to food stamps in order to survive. It is heartbreaking to see a POW's surviving spouse spend her remaining days in destitution.
In the scheme of things, the amount of funds needed to correct this injustice is trivial. Because the number of surviving spouses who were denied DIC under the 10-year rule has dwindled over the past four years, the cost of H.R. 156 is now likely to be less than $1.5 million a year, decreasing to about zero by 2015.
This bill deserves your approval because POW widows cannot survive on Social Security. No one will live lavishly on DIC benefits of $1,067 per month, but to POW widows, it can mean the difference between worrying about paying the light bill or the rent, and living out their final years without constant anxiety. POWs suffered enough anxiety when they were captured while fighting for their country. They would be happy to know that their widows were being taken care of. Please, pass H.R. 156—in their memory. Thank you.