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Racial discrimination by Veterans Affairs spans decades, lawsuit says

The US government has discriminated against “countless” Black military veterans dating back decades, rejecting service-connected disability claims disproportionately compared with 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 filed Monday contends.

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 Black Americans who served in the military and their families, potentially clearing a path for others to seek recompense.

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“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.”

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

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.

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“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.

Other VA benefits are substantial, helping pay for college tuition and setting favorable interest rates for government-backed home loans, most of which are secured 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 conducted by Brandeis University's Institute for Economic and Racial Equity found it enriched the lives of White Americans far more than Black Americans, limiting the possibilities of social advancement.

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

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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 cofounder 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 because of staff shortages, according to Yale’s assessment of VA records.

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 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.

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A proposed law, the GI Bill Restoration Act, would address such disparities by providing benefits to the descendants of some Black World War II veterans, 6 percent of whom earned a college degree after the war, the bill says. About 19 percent of White World War II veterans did so. The bill was introduced in the House last year but has not moved on to a vote.

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

He worked as a driver responsible for hauling US 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 US 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 US 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.

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Monk said he did not understand the gravity of that decision until VA denied him home loans and access to education through the GI Bill. He fought drug addiction while his mental health issues went untreated, he said.

“I was angry at VA for denying me services even though I fought in Vietnam honorably,” he said. “The government was like my enemy. They were not there for me.”

With help from Yale’s legal clinic, Monk reapplied for disability benefits and won his case in 2015. In 2020, an appeal reversed his punitive discharge, belatedly awarding him benefits denied after his return from Vietnam. Yet the decision did not make him whole, the suit contends.

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

“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.

At a news conference in New Haven to announce the lawsuit, Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut, said Monk is “leading the charge” in what he called “a truly historic” case. “It will help to break down the apparent discrimination against Black veterans,” the senator said.

Monk said he wants to see “equal treatment.”

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