If for some reason you’re under the mistaken impression that faking PTSD is a victimless crime, let us give you a strong correction: Not only does it display a complete lack of honor and integrity, it also hurts a ton of people–none more so than the legitimate sufferers of PTSD. Read on to find out exactly how out of hand the fakery has gotten, and what we propose should be done about it.
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Thieves and Liars: PTSD Fakers and the VA
A few months ago, a woman sitting next to me on an airplane started a friendly conversation. When she found out I was an Iraq and Afghanistan veteran, she asked about something that was obviously bothering her.
“My daughter’s friend is an Iraq veteran,” she said. “He wasn’t in combat, but he’s disabled by PTSD. He was a medic, and he says the enemy was always trying to capture medics. On missions they wouldn’t let him out of the Humvee because he was in so much danger. He says his PTSD is from being scared of being captured.”
The woman was almost embarrassed to tell the story. Her expression betrayed obvious doubts about this veteran’s “trauma”. But like most of the public, she didn’t feel justified questioning any PTSD claim, from any veteran, for any reason. When I told her I never heard of medics being targeted more than anyone else (especially since they don’t dress or look different than other troops), that riding in a Humvee in Iraq isn’t so scary as to disable someone for life, and that he was probably milking the system for free money, she seemed relieved. She suspected the same thing, but didn’t feel right saying so.
It’s fair to say most of us combat veterans have suspicions about PTSD claims. We’ve been frustrated by stories of horrible, disabling PTSD from people we know were never in combat. We’ve heard of troops coming home from deployments to peaceful countries, never hearing a shot fired, but immediately claiming PTSD. We know that in the War on Terror only a small percentage of troops actually faced an enemy, and many of those relished the experience. We have the nagging feeling most PTSD claims are more about free money than healing and recovery. Some of us have become so skeptical, we automatically throw a mental BS flag when we hear someone talk about having PTSD.
But most of us doubters aren’t psychologists. We’re not trained. We don’t know what transpires between a veteran claiming PTSD and his VA counselor. We know PTSD doesn’t require combat experience, and understand not everyone has the same resistance to trauma, but still wonder if veterans really get disability payments for being yelled at in basic training. We hear assurances that PTSD disability isn’t handed out like candy, that claimed trauma is investigated rather than blindly accepted, and that the “tiny number” of scammers are quickly identified and booted from the system. Maybe our suspicion that the VA PTSD system is corrupt and overrun with liars, scammers and thieves is off base.
If our suspicions were confirmed, that would be pretty depressing. Know what would be even more depressing? Being told by two VA psychologists that the system is even more corrupt and full of liars, scammers and thieves than we thought.
Not long ago I wrote an article about two “combat” vets and their attempts to paint veterans as pitiful victims of PTSD. A VA psychologist read the article and contacted me. He can’t speak publicly because he still works at a large VA center, but I verified his identity and work. I’ll call him John.
John has treated over 700 veterans for PTSD. He estimates 75% of his patients are either outright fabricating trauma, or twisting benign experiences into supposed trauma in order to qualify for disability benefits. “Of all patients referred to me in 2015 for PTSD evaluation, 25% (estimated generously) had a real trauma-related condition,” John wrote. “And the majority of the remainder were obviously feigning PTSD symptoms.”
Few of John’s patients were actual combat veterans. “Only 10% had documentation (CIB/CAB/CAR/Purple Heart/Bronze Star, etc.) indicating substantial combat exposure,” John said. “Yet just over half were receiving VA disability payments for PTSD. All who weren’t yet on disability for PTSD were applying for it, and most on disability were appealing to increase their disability rating.”
Their claimed “trauma” often wasn’t what most people would reasonably consider traumatic. “The majority who deployed to combat zones didn’t experience combat but were stressed from being near it, fighting with other GIs during deployments, knowing someone who was killed, or being on a base when a mortar round or rocket hit somewhere on or near the base,” John said. “Those who never deployed claimed such traumas as basic training accidents or other accidents on base (sometimes car wrecks, broken bones, getting in fights, riot duty), or feeling bullied by drill sergeants or supervisors.”
Often, their claimed symptoms or suffering are blatantly contradictory. For example, they cheerfully recount events they claim traumatized them at the time and emotionally cripple them now. In one of the most ridiculous contradictions, John observed “They also frequently wear military paraphernalia while saying they can’t be around things reminding them of the military.”
John sees a huge difference between PTSD therapy within the VA, and treatment outside. “In every other clinical setting, PTSD is considered pretty easily treatable with a relatively short duration of exposure therapy. But in the VA, it’s disabling for life. We pay people to be sick, and to stay sick. If you wanted to create a perfect way to keep people from getting better, you’d invent the VA compensation system.”
And he’s frustrated nearly to the point of disgust with the VA’s willingness to turn almost any claimed “trauma” into a monthly check for life. “People experience trauma every day. We’ve all had car wrecks or near misses. We’ve lost loved ones. We’ve been crime victims. In normal life, we recover from those things. But in the VA, if a rocket landed a kilometer away and didn’t hit anyone, you’re disabled forever.”
John says many PTSD claimants have been coached to inflate those rocket attacks, and other similar events, into lifelong trauma by Veteran Services Organizations (VSOs). “Some of the more naïve vets will tell me they were coached,” John said. “They’ll say, ‘The guy I talked to said to tell you I have these specific symptoms, and to make sure you write them down.’ Several vets have told us that when they talk to VSO reps, the first question is, ‘Have you gotten your PTSD yet?’”
In addition to taking VSO advice to lie or exaggerate, veterans are apparently sharing advice about what specific stories to tell to be diagnosed with PTSD. “We’ll get several veterans coming in separately and telling the exact same story about how they were traumatized. Sometimes the stories don’t make sense at all, like Desert Storm veterans claiming their convoys were hit by IEDs on convoys to Baghdad.”
John can’t give specifics, but two Army veterans who served during a particular war told stories of being traumatized by their experiences at a notorious attack. However, the attack they claimed to have witnessed happened years after their war and discharge, and involved a different service. Imagine a World War II veteran who was discharged in 1945 claiming he was traumatized by his experiences at the Pusan Perimeter in Korea in 1950; that’s how stupid this lie was.
“I told one of those veterans he couldn’t have been there, because his DD-214 showed he wasn’t even in the military when it happened. He stopped talking, glared at me, grabbed his DD-214 and walked out.”
So he was kicked out of the VA for malingering, right? Of course not. “In my notes I wrote that the veteran was clearly malingering, and could not have been at his claimed qualifying event,” John said. “But the evaluator either didn’t bother to read my notes, or wanted to be nice to the veteran. So he’s on 100% disability for PTSD, even after I caught him making up trauma.”
At this point, I know what some readers are saying: “This is nonsense. I’m not going to believe a bunch of stories about VA scams from some anonymous source.” Fair enough.
I’d like to introduce my second source, Dr. Christopher Frueh (pronounced “Free”). Dr. Frueh was a VA psychologist for fifteen years, from 1991 to 2006. He was quoted in a 2014 LA Times article about PTSD malingering (which mentioned, among other things, a veteran receiving PTSD disability for falling and breaking her leg while walking to the DFAC), and has spoken out about massive fraud in the system for years.
The VA wasn’t too happy with Dr. Frueh. “I kept getting pushback for what I was saying about PTSD fraud,” Dr. Frueh said. “The VA even assigned a handler to monitor everything I said during interviews. Then they told me I couldn’t do interviews at all. Eventually, after fifteen years of trying to fix the problems and running into a brick wall, I left the VA.”
A big part of the VA’s anger at Frueh came from his accusation that the VA engages in “collusive lying” with veterans obviously faking PTSD. “Some veterans tell obvious lies, their documents don’t support their claimed trauma, their behavior doesn’t match their reported symptoms, their psychologist reports them as malingering, and the VA approves disability benefits anyway,” Frueh said. “Psychologists are ordered not to question even the most egregious fabrications. Nobody is willing to stand up to the uproar that would come from both political parties, and from VSOs, if we acknowledged what everyone already knows: a lot of veterans are lying about PTSD to get free money.”
Malingering causes real, measurable problems. Verified veterans with verified problems have stopped coming to treatment, especially group therapy, because they don’t want to be associated with the obvious posers. VA treatment programs can’t be measured for effectiveness because almost every patient, whether they’re getting better or not, claims their symptoms are worsening until their rating reaches 100%. According to one study, 82% of those who max out on disability then stop attending treatment. If their problem is so terrible they’re completely disabled, why suddenly stop getting help?
“The VA doesn’t want to face this,” Dr. Frueh said. “We’re employing very expensive PTSD treatments which our own stats say are ineffective. From clinical studies outside the VA, we know those programs actually are effective. But within the VA, either these proven programs don’t work or patients are skewing the stats by lying about their symptoms. The VA doesn’t want to acknowledge that the treatment works, but a huge number of patients are lying.” Dr. Frueh discussed that problem in a 2014 Psychology Today article: “Another open secret among clinical trial investigators is that veterans often acknowledge to researchers that the treatment has helped them, but ask them not to document in the record for fear of losing disability.”
As far back as 2005, Dr. Frueh was studying PTSD fakers; that year he and several others published a study of 100 Vietnam veterans claiming PTSD. The results of Dr. Frueh’s study closely mirrored John’s experiences a decade later.
Of the 100 (alleged) veterans Dr. Frueh studied, all claimed to have been in combat, all were seeking treatment for Vietnam combat-related PTSD, and 94 were receiving disability. However,
- only 41 had objective documentation of combat service;
- 32 had served in Vietnam but their military records showed no indication of combat;
- 20 had served in the Vietnam War era, but had no clear documentation showing service in Vietnam;
- 3 were found to have served in the military, but not during the Vietnam War; and
- 2 had no documentation of military service whatsoever.
The study grouped the veterans as “combat”, “unclear combat”, or “no combat”. Not surprisingly, many veterans without verified combat experience claimed intense combat experiences, including being wounded, committing atrocities and even being POWs.
“For the Vietnam ‘no combat’ group, 22 out of 32 reported specific combat stressors such as seeing other soldiers wounded or killed in action, firefights, witnessing or committing atrocities, receiving fire from rockets, mortars or snipers, and long-range reconnaissance patrols behind enemy lines… Seven individuals from the Vietnam ‘unclear combat’ and ‘no combat’ groups reported being wounded in combat, although none had a Purple Heart in their military records. Two individuals reported prisoner-of-war captivity in Vietnam, and five reported ‘classified’ combat activities in Vietnam, Cambodia or Laos, although none of these experiences was documented in military records and all were reported by individuals classified in the Vietnam ‘no combat’ group. Further, these individuals were not on an accepted registry of repatriated prisoners of war.”
One actual Vietnam veteran who helped with Dr. Frueh’s study was B.G. Burkett, author of the book Stolen Valor: How the Vietnam Generation was Robbed of its Heroes and its History. Burkett has investigated thousands of stolen valor and VA fraud cases, and inspired a U.S. Attorney in Washington State to launch “Operation Stolen Valor” which caught several frauds including Jesse MacBeth. MacBeth claimed to have slaughtered dozens of Iraqi civilians and “hung them from hooks in mosques”; he became a celebrity of the anti-war movement, represented Iraq Veterans Against the War, and his lies were even translated into Arabic and distributed in the Middle East. Of course, not a single anti-war activist seems to have checked MacBeth’s records, which showed he was kicked out of basic training after 44 days (and none thought it necessary to examine his ridiculous “Army Ranger”/Airsoft clown photo).
When MacBeth was arrested he was in the process of using doctored documents to apply for PTSD disability. According to Wikipedia, he received over $10,000 in unspecified VA benefits. Several other military fakers were caught in the same investigation; six of those “disabled veterans” scammed the VA out of almost $280,000. All had fabricated their combat service, and two had never even served in the military. No, the VA doesn’t always verify claims, and doesn’t always catch liars.
In his almost thirty years of chasing down scammers and thieves, Burkett has found thousands of veterans committing fraud, police chiefs who fabricated combat service, multiple VA employees stealing money (he knows of one woman who stole fourteen million dollars by resurrecting deceased vets on paper, filing disability claims, then opening joint accounts with direct deposit), and numerous senior members of VSOs who had milked the system with fake claims for decades. In Burkett’s opinion, “We can’t get the VA to reform the system because so many people in the VA, both employees and patients, have a vested interest in keeping it corrupt. And if we push for reform, both parties will fight it because they don’t want anyone to think they aren’t ‘standing up for veterans’. The VSOs will also fight it, because many people in the VSOs are fakers themselves.”
So How Do We Fix This?
I’m a Soldier. As a Soldier, I’ve been taught not just to identify a problem, but to propose a solution. So I asked John, Dr. Frueh and Mr. Burkett for solutions.
John answered, “The number of veterans so emotionally disabled by combat they can’t work is miniscule compared to the number of veterans with treatable trauma-related conditions who don’t need disability compensation. Unfortunately, both these groups are dwarfed by the huge number of charlatans gaming the system. The fakers feed the stereotype of the emotionally crippled combat veteran, which makes people assume all combat veterans have PTSD, which makes life harder for the majority of war veterans who lead normal lives without being obnoxious, insincere blowhards. The enemy, then, is this stereotype, which can be fought by combat veterans who aren’t on disability, and by mental health experts who work with combat veterans to give good information to the public and make those promoting the stereotype uncomfortable.
I also would like to see journalists consulting with experts in order to vett and sanity-check their pieces. Veterans who suffered combat-related PTSD but successfully completed treatment without disability compensation, and who don’t identify as ‘sick’, would be invaluable fact-checkers for journalists. And while they’re at it, journalists from left-leaning media outlets might try to focus their investigative stories on the greater proportion of veterans who are thoughtful, healthy, and nuanced compared to those peddling the ‘damaged and victimized veteran’ narrative.”
Dr. Frueh’s suggestions were more technical and clinical. Two of them were to require deeper military records reviews of all VA Compensation and Pension applications, and to deny financial benefits to veterans identified as malingering or overreporting symptoms.
He added, “Better yet, reform the VA disability system entirely. Instead of paying veterans to be sick and giving them disincentives to work, help them get back on their feet. Give them all the mental health care they need, give them an immediate cash payments to pay their bills for a couple of weeks, link them up with employment services such as ‘Hire Heroes USA,’ give them access to $25K to start a business or get certificate training in some field, and then re-evaluate them. If they continue to be disabled, give them a modest disability payment for two years, but give them financial incentives to get a job and reenter society.”
Mr. Burkett’s solution was much more succinct:
“Audit one VA hospital. Just one. Don’t announce it, just pick one and quietly check everyone’s records, all the employees and patients. You’ll find so much fraud you’ll be shocked. And that will be a good indication of what’s happening in every VA hospital across the country.”
And here’s my solution:
Never withhold mental health care from a veteran. Never. Combat vet or not, honorably discharged or not, even if it’s a verified poser, give them the treatment they need. But don’t give every vet money. Save the money for the real veterans, with real problems, who need real help. Once the promise of easy money is gone, PTSD posers and fakers will stop flooding the system. If the system isn’t flooded with thousands upon thousands of liars and scammers, the notorious “VA backlog” for PTSD patients will disappear, which will make it easier for real patients to get treatment.
And that’s the entire point: to make sure the deserving get the help they need.
Every time I write about PTSD fraud or abuses – every time – I’m deluged by the same angry comments. “PTSD is real! You’re the reason vets don’t get help! All veterans are heroes! ‘Murica!” Yes, PTSD is real. Nothing I’ve ever written, here or anywhere else, even hints it’s not. No, I’m not the reason vets don’t get help; I’m not clogging the system with false claims, or stealing money from the finite resource pool, or convincing the public that combat veterans are unstable lunatics who’ll snap at the sound of a bottle rocket. And unfortunately, as the massive VA fraud shows, not all veterans are heroes.
But we should be. We should be the most honor-driven group of people in America. We should stand tall with the knowledge that our commitment to our country wasn’t hypothetical. We should be towers of strength, the quiet but proven men and women our fellow citizens turn to in times of crisis.
I think most actual combat veterans are those towers of strength. But that strength is being sapped by a human wave assault of liars, posers and thieves who see a PTSD diagnosis as free money. The public’s perception of rock-steady combat veterans is giving way to a fraud-driven caricature: the broken, pitiful, victimized veteran, so traumatized we can’t handle fireworks or the sight of a gun, dependent on a government handout, liable to explode in irrational violence or commit suicide at the slightest provocation.
Veterans who live by the mantra “My country was at war, I joined the military, I knew what I was doing and I’m better for it” seem to be dwindling into a veritable lone platoon, defending a battered perimeter from an army of frauds. Those frauds, with their battle cry of “Get money!”, feed off a supply chain of endless government handouts, misguided public sympathy, and journalists eager to swallow any “pitiful veteran” story without question or research. But we few defenders within the perimeter have something the attackers don’t: an actual sense of honor, born from real, not fabricated, service to our nation.
And it’s up to us to not just defend our position, but to fix bayonets and charge. Because if we don’t stand up to the liars and thieves poisoning our generation of veterans, the same way they poisoned the Vietnam generation, in a few short decades we’ll see respect for veterans disappear altogether. And it won’t be because real combat vets, or even real PTSD sufferers, lost it. It’ll happen because fake ones sold it for a monthly handout.
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Chris Hernandez Mad Duo Chris (seen here on patrol in Afghanistan) may just be the crustiest member of the eeeee-LITE writin’ team here at Breach-Bang-Clear. He is a veteran of both the Marine Corps and the Army National Guard who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is also a veteran police officer of two decades who spent a long (and eye-opening) deployment as part of a UN police mission in Kosovo. He is the author of White Flags & Dropped Rifles – the Real Truth About Working With the French Army and The Military Within the Military as well as the modern military fiction novels Line in the Valley, Proof of Our Resolve and Safe From the War. When he isn’t groaning about a change in the weather and snacking on Osteo Bi-Flex he writes on his own blog. You can find his author page here on Tactical 16.
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