The suit was brought by Yale Law School’s Veterans Legal Services Clinic on behalf of a Vietnam War veteran, Conley Monk Jr., whose applications for health care, home loans and education assistance were “repeatedly” turned away by the Department of Veterans Affairs, the court filing says. His advocates contend the case could help determine whether the federal government can be held liable for systemic prejudices that, over generations, have disadvantaged African Americans who served in the military and their families, potentially clearing a path for others to seek recompense.
“The negligence of VA leadership, and their failure to train, supervise, monitor, and instruct agency officials to take steps to identify and correct racial disparities, led to systematic benefits obstruction for Black veterans,” the complaint says. “VA leaders knew or should have known and negligently failed to redress.”
VA press secretary Terrence Hayes did not address the lawsuit but said in a statement that the agency is working to combat “institutional racism.” Officials are reviewing policies to serve veterans who wrongly received punitive discharges, which in most cases led VA to block their access to benefits, and contacting those pushed out the military to discuss how they can access some programs and care, he said.
“Throughout history, there have been unacceptable disparities in both VA benefits decisions and military discharge status due to racism, which have wrongly left Black veterans without access to VA care and benefits,” Hayes said. “We are actively working to right these wrongs.”
VA disability awards compensate veterans for injuries that result from military duty. Payments can range from hundreds to thousands of dollars per month while affording access to other VA programs and benefits intended to help them and their families thrive after their service obligations end. VA determines an individual’s disability rating by evaluating the severity of service-connected injuries through medical documentation and other evidence.
VA produced the benefits data cited in the lawsuit following a complaint in federal court by the National Veterans Council for Legal Redress and the Black Veterans Project. It shows the agency fully approves about 30 percent of Black veterans’ disability claims; for White veterans, the figure is 37 percent. The Associated Press reported on the data in June. The information dates only to 2002 because, before then, VA did not link disability-claim decisions to individuals’ case files 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 examined whether race was a factor in its benefits decisions. The consequence, he said, is the denial through “gross negligence” of generational wealth and social advancement for many Black veterans.
Brookshire said VA’s leaders have been unwilling to have the “difficult conversation” about racial bias. In 2017, the agency showed interest in assessing links between race and PTSD disability claims, but the effort was shelved due to staff shortages, according to Yale’s assessment of VA records.
Monk’s father served in a segregated Army unit during World War II and was denied VA disability payments for a stomach condition developed in the military, according to a separate administrative claim filed by the clinic. Monk Jr., who oversees his father’s estate, is seeking $1 million in damages for VA’s denial of his dad’s medical care and disability pay, which could have amounted to tens of thousands of dollars, according to the claim.
He worked as a driver responsible for hauling U.S. troops and supplies through areas thick with fighting. His truck was sometimes hit with gunfire, he said. During other missions, the roads were lined with enemy dead. In one horrifying instance, he watched another U.S. Marine run over a Vietnamese man, unsure whether the man was an attacker or an innocent bystander, the lawsuit says.
Monk said he developed post-traumatic stress but that no one at the time understood the condition. It would be another decade until PTSD was recognized by the American Psychiatric Association as a debilitating medical condition. When his service in Vietnam ended, Monk redeployed to a U.S. base in Japan, where he got into fights that landed him in jail. He took a deal, according to the filing, to waive his right to a court-martial and instead accept a punitive discharge from the Marines in 1970.
“Mr. Monk spent decades trying to obtain his rightfully owed benefits through VA’s administrative channels, but he was unaware of the pervasive and systematic racial bias affecting his eligibility for veterans’ benefits until VA disclosed long-withheld records” to the National Veterans Council for Legal Redress, the suit said, an organization Monk founded.
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