Dozens of Utahns taken prisoner of war and held captive after April 15, 1917, will soon be awarded a specially engraved medal of honor.
The medal, government officials say, is one way of recognizing the more than 142,000 U.S. veterans who fought on the islands of Bataan and Corregidor and the battlefields of Europe, in the snows of Korea and jungles of Vietnam - whose bodies wasted from starvation and disease and hopes dulled in enemy prison camps.The medal, available now for issue to former prisoners of war or their next of kin, is considered unique in the history of the world. No other country is believed to have ever issued a medal for being captured. The circular decoration depicts a golden eagle, wings outstretched, ringed by bayonets and barbed wire - "symbolically imprisoned (but) alert to regain freedom," a Pentagon press release says. The accompanying ribbon is red, white, blue and black.
But a local veterans' advocate says much more needs to be done to pay tribute to the men who were shot down, tortured and incarcerated in the name of preserving America's freedom.
Collie M. Mattfeld wants all POWs to be granted 100 percent disability compensation for the sacrifice they made for their country.
"The POW experienced something no other Americans experienced - no matter who captured him," said Mattfeld, national service officer of the Disabled American Veterans. "The Germans were just as cruel as the Japanese, the Japanese just as cruel as the North Koreans and the North Vietnamese. No one had it easy."
No one knows that better than the POWs who Monday noted the 43rd anniversary of V-J Day, the day President Harry Truman announced that Japan had surrendered - marking the end of fighting in World War II.
An estimated 250 POWs live in Utah. Most, Veterans Administration officials say, served in World War II - a war that produced the biggest armies, the longest battle lines and the most devastating weapons. It also inflicted more suffering - destroyed more and cost more than any other war in American history.
Utah WWII POWs, Mattfeld said, have been paying the price - emotionally, physically, financially - ever since.
Currently, each is entitled to total care at the VA Medical Center in Salt Lake City, and over the past several years, all of the POWs were offered a comprehensive protocol examination.
By now, some have established a service-connected disability for which they receive financial compensation.
But for many, it's as little as $71 a month reimbursement for three years of incarceration. By comparison, the standard 100 percent compensation payment is $1,411 a month for a single veteran.
According to VA statistics, 51,000 WWII veterans reside in Utah. Only 197 of them are drawing 100 percent compensation because of service-connected disabilities. It's not known how many of these men were POWs.
"The sad commentary to this whole thing is the fact that we didn't identify these POWs earlier," Mattfeld said. "So many who were released from captivity have gone through their whole lives with very little entitlement."
But Mattfeld says, part of the blame lies with the POW, who at the end of the war wanted nothing more to do with the military or U.S. government.
After their liberation, Mattfeld said, the men were given only a cursory examination, and granted little, if any, disability compensation.
"The WWII POWs were not treated properly," he said. "They should have been isolated as a group, studied, given special medical treatment then - not now when so many are dead or so ill they can't function. It's a travesty."
But the typically proud, independent POW was anxious to get on with his life.
"I have great admiration for these men; they went about their business. They didn't live the POW experience. They put it aside and went to work, without sharing their physical problems," Mattfeld said.
"When you are young and the problems of life are the wife, Sears and Roebuck, getting the washing machine fixed, the kids to school and trying to earn a living, your personal problems aren't so important."
Many of the WWII POWs are retired, their children have left home, and they have time to reflect on the war experience. With age, their medical ailments are more apparent.
Yet, Mattfeld said, it's still the POW who asks for the very least. "They are very proud and strong; that's why they survived."
"The day Pearl Harbor was bombed, those of us in the Philippines were abandoned by America and the attitude of our government relative to POWs of the Japanese has changed little," said one survivor from the Bataan Death March. "Freedom from the hated Japanese finally came, but freedom from the hurt to body and spirit still lingers.
"We survived and we are glad. We asked for nothing more than to be able to go home, and that is what we received," he said. "But I don't permit myself to examine my feelings too closely. It's too painful. I still weep when the flag goes by though."
Mattfeld said that it's been through the persuasion of groups like the DAV that more WWII POWs have gotten a protocol exam and had their disability rating re-evaluated.
In Utah, the evaluation is done by a three-member rating board - a physician and two attorneys, who are full-time VA employees. After reviewing a claim, a physician's report, and military records, the rating board determines if the disability is service-connected. The compensation reimbursement is then established.
If the veteran disagrees with his rating by the board, he can request a hearing. But VA officials say those are few and far between.
One veteran explained why. "It was the most demeaning experience I have had," he said. "They did everything they could to discredit me, belittle me and make me feel like I was trying to gouge the government."
Others throughout the country have reported similar experiences.
"One of the main problems is that the people in the VA don't understand the full responsibility a person has to take when he becomes a prisoner of war - and the hazard. Many (rating boards) have bad attitudes," said Elmer E. Long, national secretary, American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor.
"The people who don't have any relatives in the war have little interest in it. If they had a son or brother fighting, they'd follow it - stay closer to it," Long said. "It's just a job to many of them (VA rating boards) and they treat most of us like flunkies who surrendered and now want some kind of help. That wasn't the way it was. They don't understand. We were only eating one meal a day when we were fighting for Uncle Sam."
Long said 55 Utah POWs from Bataan and Corregidor are still living. Approximately 16,000 of the 25,000 POWs who fought in the Philippines are dead. Fifty percent of the survivors are drawing 100 percent disability, he said.
But Utah, he said, isn't the place to go to draw it. Florida and Pennsylvania are much more understanding of their POWs.
Douglas Wadsworth, director of the VA regional office in Salt Lake City, disagrees.
"I feel the veterans are being fairly rated in Utah. It's the same process for every state, not something we do in Utah only," he said. "I think it's unfortunate that they (veterans) feel humiliated (when coming before the board). It isn't our intention to humiliate people; we want to do what is fair and just.
"We are bound by guidelines, plus we have to treat the veterans fairly," Wadsworth said. "The guideline is `when in doubt rule in favor of the veteran.' "
But many veterans maintain that the procedure is: "When in doubt, rule against the veteran."
"I am not saying the VA isn't going to help the man, give him his just award. But if that were the case, I wouldn't have to be here," Mattfeld said, adding, "Utah's probably the worst state in the United States to acknowledge its veterans. Until this year, it was one of only two states in the United States that didn't even have a veterans' cemetery."