Black veterans were more likely to be denied VA benefits because of PTSD than their white counterparts, according to a recent study.
A recently released internal Veterans Affairs 2017 report shows that black veterans were more likely to be denied benefits due to PTSD than their white counterparts.
The analysis looked at claims data from FY 2011 to FY 2016 and found that black veterans seeking disability benefits for PTSD were denied 57% of the time, compared to 43% for white veterans. The report appeared as part of a record release request filed by the Black Veterans Advocacy Group.
Terrence Hayes, a spokesman for the Department of Veterans Affairs, said the agency does not have current data on the racial breakdown of disability benefits for PTSD and said the agency is “collecting data and will share it once it is fully collected.”
Hayes wrote in an email that the agency could not comment on any ongoing litigation, but that Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough is committed to closing racial disparities in Veterans Affairs benefits.
Hayes noted that earlier this month, McDonough acknowledged the inconsistencies and announced the formation of an equity group, telling reporters, “The first task of this group will be to examine the inconsistencies in grant rates for black veterans, as well as all minority veterans and historically underserved veterans. . – and remove them.
Richard Brookshire, a black veteran who served in Afghanistan as a military medic, co-founded the Black Veterans Project in Baltimore, which filed a freedom of information lawsuit. He says he is disappointed that the government is aggressively recruiting black soldiers from black neighborhoods, but that the VA is unable to share data on the differences. “If they don’t know, it’s because they don’t want to know,” he told NBC Washington.
Brookshire said VA originally provided him with raw data from 2002 to 2020, which was analyzed by a Columbia University team and the data showed discrepancies, but VA did not share his 2017 analysis until after he filed a FOIA lawsuit.
The 2017 analysis is significant because studies found that minority veterans had higher rates of PTSD (5.8%) than non-minority veterans (5%). Black Vietnam veterans have been found to have higher levels of PTSD, in part because they were more likely to be in combat than their white counterparts.
The inconsistencies were highlighted in a series of reports by NBC News Now and local NBC stations in a series titled “American Veterinarians: Advantage, Race, and Inequality”.
Kayla Williams, a former senior VA official, now talks about what she describes as the agency’s history of reluctance to acknowledge these inconsistencies.
“There are people in Virginia who don’t want to look for or look at these issues,” said Williams, former director of the Women’s Veterans Center. “They are concerned that if inconsistencies are found, it will undermine veterans’ trust in the VA. My personal opinion is that it’s a bit backwards.”
“I would wake up in a fight”
Ronnie Forbes, a black veteran living in Livermore, California, enlisted in the army in 1984 and was sent to Korea, where he was stationed in the DMZ. He says that’s where he developed PTSD due to living in a state of constant alert. “I couldn’t sleep at night hearing all kinds of things and anxiety attacks,” he told NBC Bay Area reporter Bigad Shaban.
In 2015, he applied to the VA with a disability claim for post-traumatic stress disorder. Nine months later, the VA turned him down. With the help of advocacy groups, he appealed the VA’s decision several times and received backdated approval last month, seven years after his initial rejection.
Forbes told Shaban he believes racism played a role in his years-long pursuit of PTSD benefits. “I dealt with it in the army and now outside of the army,” he said. “As a veteran, I am resolving the same issues through this appeal process.”
Conley Monk Jr., 74, from Connecticut, served as a Marine in Vietnam and says he is still haunted by a horrific incident when a Marine ran over a Vietnamese right in front of him. He says he was unaware at the time that the incident and the violence he witnessed in Vietnam contributed to his post-traumatic stress disorder. “Ever since I got back from Vietnam, I knew I had a problem, but I didn’t know what it was. I knew that every time I get angry, when someone gets their hands on me, I will react and it will get me into trouble.”
Monk says that after serving in Vietnam, he was transferred to Okinawa, where he had two altercations, which he attributes in part to “a constant state of fear and heightened vigilance,” according to court documents.
He told Connecticut-based NBC reporter Kyle Jones in Hartford that he often didn’t sleep well. “You know, my sisters or brothers, if anyone had their hands on me, I would wake up struggling. That’s how I realized I had a problem. But I didn’t know its name.”
He says he agreed to an “undesirable termination” after a fight in Okinawa, but didn’t realize it could affect his eligibility for veterans’ benefits. Monk says it took 40 years for his discharge to be reversed.
In early March, Secretary of State McDonough said the agency was “combating racial disparities in decisions about veterans’ benefits and discharge status from the military.”
Forbes told Shaban he was grateful to the department for acknowledging that they had failed. “I feel relieved that they acknowledge what is happening. It’s kind of a relief for me,” he said. “Now we know what the problem is. Now let’s work on a solution.”
This article was reported by Lucy Bustamante at NBC Philadelphia, Kyle Jones and Katherine Loy NBC Connecticut, Tracey Wilkins and Rick Yarborough NBC Washington, Bigad Shaban and Michael Bott NBC Bay Area, Mark Mullen and Mike Dorfman NBC San Diego, Noreen O’Donnell of NBCU Local and Laura Strickler of the NBC News Investigative Unit.
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