This article was written by Yalitza Ledgister of the law firm of Attig | Curran | Steel, PLLC (I’m told a link to Yalitza’s bio is coming soon).
In June 2020, I promised that, in an effort to take a step towards ending the systematic oppression of Black veterans, I would hire a writer to elevate the voices of Black veterans, veterans of color, women veterans and veterans who identify as LGBTQI.
I followed through on my word: Yalitza’s column will be written for the Attig | Curran | Steel law firm’s “Taking Point” blog. Her first post appears here.
That law firm has agreed to syndicate her posts to a new column on the Veterans Law Blog®: The Real Veteran. On “The Real Veteran,” I and guest writers will explore what it really means to be a veteran. If you would like to submit an article to be published in the “The Real Veteran”, please click here to pitch your idea to me.
Racist Ideas, Attitudes, and Behavior
On March 1, 2016, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) announced it proposed disciplinary action against three Board of Veterans’ Appeals (BVA) attorneys and two judges who had repeatedly sent racist and sexist emails about women and minority veterans.
Less than two years later, a Veteran’s Benefits Regional Office manager and US combat veteran posted a racist comment publicly on social media. He called the Black New English Patriot players “turds” adding “dance monkey dance” to his racist rhetoric while they peaceably kneeled during the national anthem in protest of the oppression Black people experience in America. He was temporarily demoted by the VA before he again in June 2020 posted a violent call for the police to, “Switch to the billy Club and take the bad guys down” in response to protestors in the wake of George Floyd’s brutal murder by police officer Chauvin.
A Black Veteran’s Story.
On the other side of the country, a US Navy veteran walked into her Compensation and Pension appointment (C&P) carrying her recent medical records. The past few months had been difficult when it came to her severe symptoms. The need for treatment had been ongoing since her discharge from the Navy. The current racial divide of the country only compounded her fears.
“Do you need any of my medical records? I brought you a copy.”
The examiner in the room responded, “No, I’ve already read through them. Sit down, have a seat. Tell me, what do your parents do?”
“I am not sure about my dad, we don’t talk. My mom is a police officer.”
The examiner paused. “How do you feel about Black Lives Matter and the defunding of police?”
Her mind began racing wondering if the question really did come out of the examiner’s mouth.
Intrusive memories of how she was treated in the Navy and the things her mother and brother told her about working for the police department flashed through her mind. Her conviction was unwavering.
“I support it.”
The examiner’s demeanor changed. The veteran continued to tell her story, but the examiner had become indifferent and uninterested.
Fifteen minutes later, the appointment was over. She walked out feeling judged. C&P exams are used by the Veteran’s Benefits Regional Office to make disability determinations. The BVA judges and attorneys then make decisions on the appeals of these cases. She knew her stance against the oppression of Black people would be used as a weapon against her as it has been in the past. “I knew she was pretty pissed about what I said but she didn’t want to make a scene. I shouldn’t have to hide what I believe in to receive better treatment.” Eight days later, she received the letter.
Proposal to Reduce Rating.
“This experience has absolutely changed the way I will interact with the VA in the future. I currently would prefer a Black doctor. I feel like if it happened once, it can happen again…”
She filed a complaint against the examiner due to unprofessional and discriminatory questioning. She also sought an appeal for the decrease in her disability rating and won. There was no evidence to justify the reduction.
She now joins other Black veterans that are distrustful of VA and the lack of equity in the benefits it promises. Racist leadership and frontline workers in the VA cause the disparities in disability benefits and healthcare. For concerns over continued retaliation she did not share her name with this writer.
The Casualties of Racism in the VA.
Nearly 80 percent of Veterans Affairs employees surveyed by their workers union in July said endemic racism within the federal government’s second-largest organization is a moderate or serious problem, with more than half reporting they have witnessed discrimination against the veterans whom the agency serves. (Washington Post, August 7, 2020)
In other words, 195,000 employees in the VA, are witnessing discrimination against the over 2 million minority veterans whom they serve. These violations echo what the data shows about the experience of the Black veteran with the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Disparities in health care outcomes within VA medical centers in the form of lower survival rates for African American veterans with cancer and cardiovascular-related illnesses. Discriminatory experiences within the VA and the military will always contribute to Minority veteran’s low utilization of VA benefits. In 2007, the Department of Veterans Affairs Health Services Research & Development Service published a Systemic Review of the Racial and Ethnic Disparities in VA Healthcare System after a $12 million dollar grant. Although the study could not account for the degree to which there was racial bias among medical providers, one study exposed that:
Physicians were more likely to write do-not-resuscitate orders based on medical futility among Black patients compared to white patients. This conclusion was independent of the same physicians’ predictions of the likelihood that the patients would survive resuscitation efforts.
Accountability is Missing.
In 2019 the Government Accountability Office (GAO) questioned various VA officials on the lack of accountability in addressing the disparities in healthcare between white and Black veterans. The VA conceded that the studies suggest, “standardized disease management protocols may not be sufficiently attuned to the needs of minority populations.”
They passively added, “Greater sensitivity to veterans’ racial and ethnic background may help health care providers communicate more effectively with veterans and their families.” There is no plan on how they will accomplish this in a way that is measurable. The target completion date of addressing this recommendation is December 2020.
The Report of The Advisory Committee on Minority Veterans in 2017 expressed concerns that the VA is inconsistent in collecting race and ethnicity data and that it impedes VA’s ability to adequately identify and address repetitive issues and concerns of minority veterans and ethnicity data by VBA, VHA and NCA. This inconsistency continues to mask the depth of the problem.
The popular Survey of Healthcare Experiences of Patients (SHEP) used by the VA to measure patient satisfaction does not include the scores from minority veterans. In the GAO report, VA officials responded, “the number of minority veterans responding to the SHEP is too small to report.” Considering what the majority of VA employees are witnessing, it is clear these numbers would be damaging. Although there are internal policies, organizations, and committees that work to protect minority veterans from discrimination in pursuit of hard-earned benefits or healthcare… there are no judicial provisions outside of employment to hold perpetrators of discrimination accountable. The systematic racism in these federal departments protect those that marginalize and minimize the voices of the oppressed because of the lack of accountability.
The VA as a Guinea Pig for Social Justice.
Unlike the rest of the civilian society, there are Federal Veterans Laws, Rules and Regulations that can compensate veterans of color for mental illness caused by racial trauma. Current studies about the psychological impact of racism and discrimination reveal that the words of discrimination and prejudice transform the physiology of the brain and results in chronic mental illness, which may be compensable under VA law (38CFR 4.130 and 3.304) when it is connected to military service or while you were getting VA medical care or taking part in a VA program designed to help you find, get, or keep a job. (38CFR 3.361)
It is the duty of every veteran and VA employee to call out racist speech, behavior, beliefs, and systems. As a community that has pledged to serve, it would be dishonorable to not defend our brothers and sisters that are discriminated against on the same ground that we birth our children and bury our ancestors. It is the duty of everyone to purge themselves of the racist and discriminatory ideas that marginalize other groups. The lack of intent will not stop the adverse impact chronic racial microaggressions have on others and the psychological wounds left behind.
Thank you, Navy veteran and VA employee for calling out the racism and discrimination. Veterans that claim they all bleed green fail to acknowledge that Black veterans, their families, and communities have been bleeding out for hundreds of years. It is time to call out this moral betrayal.
A Call to Action
Dr. Martin Luther King once said:
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
Victims of racism and discrimination and those that witness it need to share their story because it inspires others to speak out and call it out. Your story gives the data on racial disparities a human voice. Share your story with us so that we can feature them here. You can reach me at yalitza@BVAappeals.com.