Racial discrimination by Veterans Affairs spans decades, lawsuit says

Racial discrimination by Veterans Affairs spans decades, lawsuit says


The US government has discriminated against “countless” Black military veterans dating decades, dismissing service-related disability claims disproportionately to white applicants and blocking access to housing and education benefits that helped fuel the rise of America’s middle class after World War II, a lawsuit was filed on Monday.

The lawsuit was filed by Yale Law School’s Veterans Legal Services Clinic on behalf of Vietnam War veteran Conley Monk Jr., whose claims for health care, home loans and aid for education have been “repeatedly” rejected by the Department of Veterans Affairs, the court record says. His attorneys argue the case could help determine whether the federal government can be held accountable for the systemic harms that, over generations, have disadvantaged African Americans who served in the military and their families, potentially paving the way to others to ask for a reward.

“VA leadership’s negligence and failure to train, supervise, monitor, and instruct agency officials to take action to identify and correct racial disparities has led to a systematic obstruction of benefits for Black veterans,” indicates the complaint. “VA leaders knew or should have known and failed to fix through negligence.”

The lawsuit relies on internal VA data showing that, from 2002 to 2020, the agency denied black people applying for disability benefits nearly 30% of the time, while white applicants experienced a dropout rate. 24% rejection. VA also administers home loans and education assistance for eligible veterans, and racial disparities also exist in those categories, according to recent studies and pending legislation in Congress.

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VA publicist Terrence Hayes did not address the lawsuit, but said in a statement that the agency is working to address “institutional racism.” Officials are reviewing policies to serve veterans who wrongfully received punitive discharges, which in most cases led VA to block their access to benefits, and contacting those who were discharged from the military to discuss how they can access certain programs and care, he said.

“Throughout history, there have been unacceptable disparities in decisions about VA benefits and military discharge status due to racism, which have wrongfully left black veterans without access to care and to VA benefits,” Hayes said. “We are actively working to right these wrongs.”

VA disability benefits compensate veterans for injuries resulting from military service. Payments can range from hundreds to thousands of dollars per month while providing access to other VA programs and benefits designed to help them and their families thrive after their service obligations end. VA determines an individual’s disability rating by assessing the severity of service-related injuries through medical documentation and other evidence.

Other benefits of the VA are substantial, helping to pay tuition and securing favorable interest rates for government-backed home loans, most of which are guaranteed with no down payment. The education assistance and home loans contained in the original GI bill, which became law in 1944, are credited with helping veterans and their families generate wealth after World War II. But a recent study by the Institute for Economic and Racial Equity at Brandeis University found that it enriches the lives of white Americans far more than that of black Americans, limiting opportunities for social advancement.

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A separate study, overseen by the Connecticut Veterans Legal Center, found that black veterans disproportionately receive more punitive discharges from the service, limiting their access to VA support. Critics of the agency also point to a survey, conducted in 2020 by a union of VA workers, finding that more than half of employees who responded said they had witnessed racism directed at veterans served by the department.

VA produced the benefits data cited in the lawsuit as a result of a lawsuit filed in federal court by the National Veterans Council for Legal Remedies and the Black Veterans Project. This shows that the agency fully approves about 30% of black veterans’ disability claims; for white veterans, the figure is 37%. The Associated Press reported on the data in June. The information only dates from 2002 because, previously, VA did not link disability claim decisions to individual records nor did it retain decision data, the suit said.

Richard Brookshire, an Army veteran who served in Afghanistan and is the co-founder of the Black Veterans Project, said it appears VA has never considered whether race was a factor in its employment decisions. ‘advantages. The consequence, he said, is the “grossly negligent” denial of the generational wealth and social advancement of many black veterans.

Brookshire said VA leaders were unwilling to have the “tough conversation” about racial bias. In 2017, the agency expressed interest in assessing links between race and disability claims for PTSD, but the effort was dropped due to understaffing, according to Yale’s assessment of the records. from VA.

Emblematic of the problem, Brookshire said, is Monk Jr., whose case is at the heart of the lawsuit filed in Connecticut on Monday.

Monk’s father served in a separate Army unit during World War II and was denied VA disability payments for a stomach condition he developed in the military, according to an administrative claim separate filed by the clinic. Monk Jr., who is overseeing his father’s estate, is seeking $1 million in damages for VA’s refusal to pay for his father’s medical treatment and disability award, which could have been up to tens of thousands of dollars, according to the claim.

A bill, the GI Bill Restoration Act, would address those disparities by providing benefits to the descendants of some black World War II veterans, 6% of whom graduated from college after the war, the bill says. About 19% of white World War II veterans did. The bill was introduced in the House last year, but was not put to a vote.

Monk Jr.’s government service began in a VA hospital kitchen in West Haven, Connecticut. In 1968 he enlisted in the Marine Corps and was sent to Vietnam the following year, he said in an interview.

He worked as a driver transporting American troops and supplies through battle-torn areas. His truck was occasionally hit by gunfire, he said. On other missions, the roads were lined with dead enemies. In one horrific case, he witnessed another U.S. Marine run over a Vietnamese man, unsure if he was an attacker or an innocent bystander, according to the lawsuit.

Monk said he developed post-traumatic stress disorder but no one at the time understood the condition. It would take another ten years before PTSD was recognized by the American Psychiatric Association as a debilitating medical condition. When his service in Vietnam ended, Monk redeployed to an American base in Japan, where he saw combat that landed him in prison. He reached an agreement, according to the record, to waive his right to a court martial and instead accept a punitive discharge from the Marines in 1970.

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Monk said he didn’t understand the seriousness of the decision until VA denied him home loans and access to education through the GI Bill. He battled drug addiction while his mental health issues went untreated, he said.

“I was angry with VA for denying me services even though I fought honorably in Vietnam,” he said. “The government was like my enemy. They weren’t there for me. »

With help from the Yale Legal Clinic, Monk reapplied for disability benefits and won his case in 2015. In 2020, an appeal overturned his punitive discharge, belatedly granting him benefits denied after his return from Vietnam. Still, the decision did not cure him, the suit claims.

Monk tried to resolve the issue through an administrative complaint in February, but VA did not respond, the legal clinic said, triggering the lawsuit.

“Mr. Monk spent decades trying to obtain his legitimate benefits through VA administrative channels, but he was unaware of the pervasive and systematic racial bias affecting his eligibility for veterans benefits until for VA to release long-held records” to the National Veterans Council for Legal Redress, says the suit, an organization founded by Monk.

At a news conference in New Haven to announce the lawsuit, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said Monk was “leading the charge” in what he called “a truly historic case.” “This will help break down the apparent discrimination against black veterans,” the senator said.

Monk said he wanted to see “equal treatment”.

“When we fought in the army, we were side by side,” he said. “…Our blood is the same color.”

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