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Vietnam vet Conley Monk, Jr. (right) with U.S. Sen. Blumenthal.

Conley Monk, Jr. finally received his federal veteran benefits in 2015 after more than four decades of denied claims and a successful court battle that led to nationwide discharge appeal reform. 

The Vietnam War vet and former Marine joined a team of legal advocates and a sitting U.S. senator to announce a new lawsuit against the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) alleging racial bias in the process by which benefit claims like his are reviewed and approved.

Monk, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, and members of the Yale Veteran Legal Services Clinic (VLSC) announced that new lawsuit during a Monday morning press conference at the Dixwell Community ​“Q” House at 197 Dixwell Ave. 

The VLSC is suing on behalf of Monk as well as his father Conley Monk Sr., a World War II vet who died in the 1990s. Monk Sr. also applied for disability benefits and had them denied. 

The Veteran Legal Services Clinic, Monk and Blumenthal on Monday.

“This has been a long time coming. I’ve been fighting for years for compensation after being denied benefits for so long,” Monk said at Monday’s press conference. ​“I appreciate what I finally received, but it wasn’t enough. It didn’t compensate my family…it was discriminatory.” 

Monday’s lawsuit stems from data Monk’s National Veterans Council for Legal Redress and the Black Veterans Project obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests over the last two years. 

Monk and his lawyers said the data they obtained show a statistically significant difference in the rates of claims denied by the VA based on race. The data, which is from 2002 to 2020, show that a Black veteran was more likely to have their disability claim denied than a White veteran.

“These Black veterans served their country faithfully, but they were treated in a discriminatory manner when they needed the benefits that were rightfully theirs,” Adam Henderson, one of the legal interns from Yale Law School who is working on the case, said at the press conference. 

“VA leadership knew or should have known of the racial disparities in their administration of veterans’ benefits, but they failed to make changes to eliminate racial bias in VA programs,” Henderson added. ​“Mr. Monk now files this lawsuit, seeking to be fully compensated for the harm that VA caused by repeatedly denying his benefits applications.” 

Courtesy of the Veteran Legal Services Clinic

While Monday’s lawsuit stems from alleged discrimination within the VA’s decision making process, Monk’s denial of benefits began with his initial less-than-honorable discharge from the military.

During his tour in Vietnam, Monk displayed valor in the face of intense violence and received a Rifle Marksman Badge, a National Defense Service Medal, a Vietnam Service Medal with one star, and a Vietnam Combat Medal.

In November 1969, his battalion, the third Marine battalion, was pulled out of Vietnam and stationed in Okinawa. In Okinawa, Monk began to experience the onset of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

His PTSD led to two altercations in Okinawa leading him to spend time in base prison. He was then told that his only way out of base prison was signing papers for an ​“undesirable” discharge.

According to Monk, the level of misconduct that he engaged in did not lead to the less-than-honorable discharges for many of his White peers.

“Black discharges that are less than honorable are at a much higher rate, almost 1.5 times, from the military than for white rate of less than honorable discharges,” said Blumenthal, who is also a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Receiving an Undesirable discharge, which is now called an ​“other than honorable” discharge, makes a veteran ineligible for many benefits from the VA, including housing and education assistance as well as disability payments.

Michael Wishnie, one of the lead lawyers at the VLSC who filed the original discharge case for Monk, explained that the VA is supposed to make its own ​“character of discharge,” or COD, determination for benefits. However, the VA normally just ​“rubber stamps” the Department of Defense’s discharge without evaluating any other information or context.

According to Wishnie a common misconception about the VA is that it is bound by the DoD’s discharge, which in fact is not the case.

In its 1971 COD, the VA rubber stamped the DOD’s discharge decision on Monk, Monk’s legal team claimed on Monday.

In response to a request for comment about this new lawsuit, VA Press Secretary Terrence Hayes emailed a statement to the Independent that said that the department is currently studying racial disparities in claims decisions and that the VA will publish the results as soon as possible.

“We are not waiting on the results of the study to take action,” he added. ​“We are taking steps to ensure that our claims process combats institutional racism, rather than perpetuating it; re-evaluating our policies to equitably serve Veterans who were wrongly given Other Than Honorable discharges; and proactively reaching out to Veterans with Other Than Honorable discharges to make sure they know that they may be able to access VA benefits and health care.”

4 Decades Of Denials

Monk filed for education benefits in 1976 to complete a degree at the University of New Haven. The VA denied it under the 1971 COD. Monk paid for his education out of pocket but was forced to give up his dream of a college degree three and a half credits short because of financial strain on his family.

In 1982, Monk filed a disability claim with the VA on the grounds of PTSD. He could not claim PTSD as a ​“valid” ground of disability before 1980 because neither the American Psychiatric Association nor the VA recognize PTSD as a valid medical condition. The VA denied his claim under the 1971 COD.

Monk then filed for housing benefits in 1983.

By this point, Monk had grappled with substance abuse, gone to rehab, and then worked with the Yale Department of Psychology as a substance counselor.

He also meets many other veterans in rehab who struggle with the same problems as him. Many of them also received undesirable discharges. Seeing his own story in people around him, he created ​“The Undesirables” so that he as well as other veterans could fight to have their discharge statuses changed. That organization lives on today as the National Veterans Council for Legal Redress.

Monk hoped, in 1983, that his work serving other veterans would lead the VA to approve his claim. It was instead denied with the VA exclusively using its 1971 decision.

Finally, in 2007 Monk suffered a severe stroke from undiagnosed diabetes. After the stroke, he was diagnosed with Type II Diabetes mellitus as a result of his exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam. In 2010, he filed for disability with the VA. His case was again denied on the basis of the original discharge decision.

The new lawsuit alleges that the discriminatory statistical evidence they have collected shows that it was more likely for this claim to be denied because it was filed by a Black rather than a White veteran.

Monk approached the VLSC in 2011 for assistance on his discharge. The VLSC had Monk evaluated by a psychiatrist who determined that he has one of the most severe cases of PTSD they have ever seen.

In February 2012, Monk, represented by the VLSC, applied for disability compensation for PTSD, diabetes, and diabetic peripheral neuropathy in his arms and legs. The suit alleged that the denial in this application was also colored by discrimination according to the 2021 statistical evidence collected.

Monk’s discharge status was finally upgraded in 2015 after the VLSC filed a lawsuit that was used by Blumenthal and other national leaders to force the Defense Department to restart defunct WW2 discharge appeal boards.

Lawyers and Interns at the VLSC

Blumenthal explained to the Independent on Monday that Monk’s initial lawsuit in 2015 allowed him and other politicians to force the Defense Department to restart appeal boards where veterans could appeal hasty discharge decisions.

Monday’s lawsuit is separate from the 2015 case, but builds upon prior progress. The current case specifically points to the VA for failing to address systemic bias in its claims system that has harmed Black veterans disproportionately.

“Our government has relied on Black Americans to win its war since its founding,” said Richard Brookshire, the executive director of the Black Veterans Project. ​“But, for decades it has allowed racially discriminatory practices to obstruct Black veterans from the compensation they are due and were promised.”

Monk is asking for compensation in the lawsuit, but he also hopes that it will help change the department for the better. He is joined in his hopes by Blumenthal.

“When I walk around and see a Black man, I ask him if he served and most will say yes and most will also say that they were denied benefits,” Monk told the Independent. ​“I hope this lawsuit begins the process of changing the VA.”

“At the very least, the VA and the DOD will have to look in the mirror and ask why there are different outcomes in the same circumstances barring all variations,” Blumenthal told the this reporter. ​“This lawsuit will allow for us to ask questions and raise the profile of this issue and force change.”

This content was originally published here.

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