Photo: Conley Monk Jr.
Black military veterans have been denied disability claims and blocked from taking full advantage of service-connected benefits for decades by the U.S. government, part of a pattern of discrimination, a lawsuit filed last week alleges.
The suit was filed on behalf of a Vietnam War veteran, Conley Monk Jr., (shown above) who sought health care benefits, home loans and access to education from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) but, the lawsuit alleges, was repeatedly turned away.
Advocates contend that generations of Black veterans like Monk have been victimized by systemic discrimination that has disadvantaged them and their families, even as education and housing assistance to white veterans helped spark the growth of the middle class after World War II.
The Veterans Legal Services Clinic at Yale Law School is representing Monk in the lawsuit. For the past two years, attorneys and law students at the clinic have been working with the nonprofit Black Veterans Project to prove that Black veterans have for generations had unequal access to benefits after they leave military service – and to file lawsuits seeking recompense. A breakthrough came earlier this year, when, following a complaint filed in federal court by the Black Veterans Project and the National Veterans Council for Legal Redress, the VA produced internal data showing that, from 2002 to 2020, about 30% of disability claims by Black veterans were approved, compared to 37% of claims by white veterans.
The Southern Poverty Law Center is not involved in the legal action but has been seeking to bring attention to injustices faced by Black veterans. The efforts complement a campaign by the SPLC since 2015 to identify and call for the removal of the thousands of Confederate symbols at military installations and other public spaces.
“This is about changing the narrative about who our military heroes really are,” said Lecia Brooks, chief of staff and culture for the SPLC. “If the U.S. military is to move away from uplifting or providing a foundation of support of white supremacy, I think that recognizing Black veterans, as they think about renaming these military assets, is a good way to do so.”
Racial inequities in veterans’ benefits stretch back to the integration of the armed services in the late 1940s. Many Black service members who fought in World War II were either denied or prevented from taking full advantage of housing and educational benefits through the GI Bill. Those benefits were offered to millions of veterans transitioning to civilian life. But when the bill was being formulated, members of Congress from the Deep South insisted the law be implemented at the state level. That enabled those states, home to the majority of returning Black servicemembers, to deny or grant significantly smaller GI benefits to Black veterans. Among other disparities, the veterans were often steered away from predominantly white four-year colleges and toward vocational and other nondegree programs.
Researchers from the Institute for Economic and Racial Equity at Brandeis University recently calculated that the GI benefits secured by Black people who served in World War II were worth, on average, 40% of those that white individuals received. This produced long-term disparities, the study found.
Black veterans of the Korean and Vietnam wars had similar experiences with the program. Advocates say the generational effects of that discrimination, in terms of wealth, are still being felt today.
“This filing is so important because it gives us all, as a nation, a chance to ask the question of, what are we going to do to rectify the fact that generational wealth has been stripped and continues to be stripped from folks who decided to join the military at a time of conflict, to protect and to serve on behalf of our country,” said Richard Brookshire, an Army veteran who served in Afghanistan and is co-founder of the Black Veterans Project.
Along with advocating for restorative justice for Black veterans denied benefits, the project is seeking to unearth the stories of Black men and women who served in the U.S. armed forces and to conduct research into the unique barriers they face.
In 2020, Brookshire also helped co-found the Black Veterans Empowerment Council, a coalition of more than 15 Black veterans organizations working to advance legislation that would help mitigate inequities in housing, education, employment and health care.
The VA has not addressed the lawsuit. But in April, the White House released a summary of the VA’s new equity action plan, in which the agency acknowledges long-standing race and gender disparities in access to benefits.
Monk has confronted a raft of such disparities since he returned from serving in the Marine Corps in Vietnam, the lawsuit claims. While serving, Monk said, he developed post-traumatic stress disorder. But the condition was not recognized or understood at the time. When he redeployed to a U.S. base in Japan, he got into a series of fights, eventually accepting a punitive discharge in 1970.
That discharge made him ineligible for home loans and access to education he had sought through the GI Bill. With his mental health issues untreated, he battled drug addiction, Monk claims in the lawsuit. Aided by Yale’s legal clinic, Monk reapplied for disability benefits and was awarded them in 2015. In 2020, his punitive discharge was reversed on appeal and he was belatedly awarded some back pay. But in the new lawsuit, Monk says the VA still owes him other benefits.
Monk is not the first veteran in his family to be ill-served by the VA, according to a separate administrative claim filed by the law clinic at Yale. His father was denied disability payments for a stomach condition he developed while serving in a segregated unit during World War II. For Monk and his eight siblings, life without those payments made for a difficult childhood, he said in a recent interview with NPR.
That generational trauma is precisely the sort of discrimination that Brookshire and other advocates are seeking to bring into the public consciousness.
“The reason the Conley Monk story is so powerful is because it makes real the history that Black folks have known has happened to them for generations,” Brookshire said. “Had [Monk] actually been given disability compensation and full access to his benefits, imagine the different course of his life. And then you think about the denial of claims by his deceased father. It’s just a searing story, a gaping chasm that has affected this family.”