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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 mid 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 twice monthly. But, since I know a guy over at that law firm, they have agreed to syndicate her posts to a new column on the Veterans Law Blog®: the American Veteran. On the American 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 “American Veteran”, please click here to pitch your idea to me.  

And without further delay, let’s see where Yalitza plans to take us on her journey across The Bridge….

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Black veterans racism bridge

Even as protestors march across bridges across the nation, from the Brooklyn Bridge to the Golden Gate, history teaches us that America is resistant to acknowledging the persistent racism that plagues this country and even worse, resistant to do something meaningful about it.

Welcome to the BRIDGE.

In this column, we will Battle Racism Insensitivity Discrimination and Gentrification through Education.

The voices and truths of our veterans of color will be elevated as we journey together to understanding and action. My name is Yalitza Ledgister and I am honored to facilitate and author this column.

The Past Repeats Itself

The Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama has a historical and symbolic significance. At the foot of the bridge on March 7, 1965, police descended on peaceful protestors in a brutal attack that would later be known as Bloody Sunday.

The pictures below don’t need color for a reader to understand that the 1965 attacks were driven by the hatred that feeds racism and all of its political, social, and institutional residuals.

Compare the pictures of the marches near the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965 in response to the killing of the civil rights activist, Jimmie Lee Jackson and the ones in 2020 in response to the killing of George Floyd. Little has changed except that now many Americans from all backgrounds are compelled to join the movement to end racism and all the institutions and policies that perpetuate it.

Peaceful protests for racial justice from the present and the past aren’t strangers to the stifling response of the government and Americans alike.

Black veterans past repeats itself

In a racial context, we must be honest about the fact that despite the passing of time and progressive movements for equality, all have failed to eradicate racism completely from our country.

How do we navigate the murky waters of racial injustice, racial inequality, and racial reconciliation?

Racism is a monster that terrorizes across social, economic, political, and personal boundaries.

Difficult conversations need to happen because time itself isn’t a cure – even regarding our own racial prejudices and ideas. We have to confront them, educate ourselves, and train to correct them.

What are racist ideas?

Ibram X. Kendi wrote, “A racist idea is any idea that suggests one racial group is inferior or superior to another racial group in any way.”

This racist idea can express itself in the form of judging the outcomes or potential outcomes, behavior, and statistics of a racial group to their race. As a result, race is blamed instead of lack of resources, opportunities, and the cumulative effects of disenfranchisement across generations.

Systemic racism, under the guise of colorblind policies further widens the gaps in education, economics, and healthcare outcomes. Each layer of racism and its accompanying generational effects need to be peeled back until it is completely defeated.

Racism is a political, social, mental, and heart problem.

Racism is everyone’s problem, because if you are not on the receiving end, you are either endorsing it or complacent. All three, without intentionally calling it out for what it is and demanding it stop, ensure racism thrives.

The recent murder of George Floyd – and the police brutality that led to the killing of unarmed Black men and women who preceded and followed him – has caused an urgency to address America’s race problem now.

Black lives are at risk more than ever, from police brutality, COVID-19, or the economic fallout of the virus. There must be a call to action from all citizens.

Our country can no longer be colorblind.

To not see race, is to not see racism.

When you cannot recognize racism, very little can be done to rectify the policies and lack of policies that perpetuate it.

America, take your blinders off.

We cannot ignore the historical significance and consequences of racism that affect our society today.

We have to come to terms with the historical fact that our country found ways to subject our Black community to abuses driven by racism.

Slavery forced African Americans to serve the white race, all in the name of economic prosperity.

As our Tuskegee Airmen prepared to fight in WWII, horrific news leaked of the Tuskegee experiment which claimed the lives of 128 African American men and sickened their families. It was all in the name of science.

Vietnam veterans returned home to Jim Crow, in the name of politics. Due to VA neglect, many veterans of all races in need of medical care for PTSD after serving in Iraq and Afghanistan turned to drugs and alcohol to self-medicate.

Minority veterans disproportionately ended up in prison, homeless or dead.

Statements like, “What are they protesting for? The cop is in jail! They should be satisfied!” are thrown around.

With each comment, I became more invisible.

Did they see what happened to George Floyd? Breona Taylor? O’Shae Terry? Antwon Rose II? Terence Crutcher? Philando Castile? Laquan McDonald? Freddie Gray?

I’ve only listed a few of the Black men and women killed by police brutality in the past 5 years.

They were fathers, brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, and people. These are not isolated incidents. It is cruel, wrong, frequent, and very real just like slavery was, just like lynching was, just like Jim Crow was.

The last lynching in the U.S. was in 1981, during the millennial generation. Michael Donald was brutally beaten and hung on a tree by Ku Klux Klan members in Mobile, Alabama on March 21, 1981.

I try to drown out these conversations with my headphones as I sit at my desk reading the c-file of an African American Veteran who proudly served our country in the Army, Air Force, and Marines.

He wanted a life-long military career. He was relentless in serving a country that denied African Americans their right to equality. His last tour in the Marines ended abruptly due to an exacerbated illness that was severe enough the Medical Board discharged him. The VA granted his disability at 0%.

This was 1975.

He returned home from military service to get spit on while racial slurs were directed towards him.

What followed is a common sad story for many disabled veterans that aren’t able to get the help and support needed to transition, the medical care to keep disabilities under control, and financial resources to sustain them until they get on their feet.

Still undeterred, the veteran signed up for VA education benefits (mind you he grew up during segregation, his education most likely was sub-standard, and he enlisted in the Army during Jim Crow).

His enormous c-file goes like this: VA sponsored training program, drop out to illness, hospital admission, write to VA for increase, denial, apply for VA training program/found employment (longest gig lasts 1-2 years), fired/quit due to illness, hospital admission, write to VA for increase, denial, repeat, repeat, repeat.

He eventually won his claim. But after he wasted 35 years of his prime that he can never win back fighting the VA in his claim.

The current disability check will never give him an opportunity to raise his children or provide for his family. They’ve all since moved on without their dad.

Veterans of different backgrounds can probably relate to this story. However, the ramifications that this story has on African American veterans and their families outlive them for decades to come.

There is an urgency to prevent these outcomes especially for African American male veterans who are at risk.

The VA is uniquely positioned to do something.

The VA must do better to provide the resources Congress promised.

Not when our veterans are retired, not when our veterans are in a health crisis, not when their family members are picking plots at our National Cemeteries.

As soon as the uniform comes off.

It should be quick and it should be generous – up front.

The positive impact of such a step could last generations – producing successful veterans, united veteran families, and opportunities for the children of veterans that wouldn’t otherwise come easy.

We Must All Start to See Color.

Until Americans all start to see color, the struggles and burdens caused by racism will remain invisible.

Although people of all races have joined the cause to challenge the government and society’s role in perpetuating racism, we also need to be ready to challenge our own ideas and stereotypes on race.

Further, we have to be intentional about learning and improving our own approach to race relations.

We must question everything we ever thought to be “normal” and fact check our judgements.

Be ready to validate the experiences of others. Our actions and inactions are what separates racists from antiracists.

Everyone can do something within their sphere of influence to increase the opportunities, better integrate, and defend Black lives.

American veterans – it is time to take inventory of all beliefs, laws, policies, practices, published material, images, and messages broadcasted to millions.

The world is watching what we do and don’t do.

Our children are watching.

A Bridge is symbolic of connection.

It’s a connection that brings two distinct parts together in unity. The skill of bridge building is not for the faint of heart. Combat engineers are not immune to the natural elements they face while building their bridges. Nor are we immune to getting uncomfortable with race topics.

My aim is for this platform to be a virtual Bridge where, even as we build, we can expose the realities and consequences of racism in our veteran and Black communities.

We will elevate the voices of those who have experienced, witnessed, and challenged discrimination in the military ranks, VA, and in the civilian world.

We will educate each other with facts pertaining to the issues of racism and discrimination.

Most importantly, we will validate each other’s stories.

Through this discourse, we build awareness and connection and strategize on ideas to gain victory over the systemic racism and disenfranchisement that burdens our veterans and communities of color.

16 Comments

  1. Tommy Smith

    I am a white veteran who has who has been fighting the VA for 39 years due to a UTH Discharge due to PTSD because of MST. It took until May 22, 2020 for them to give me the following decision. “Service connection for treatment purposes only under 38 U .S.C. chapter 17 for persistent depressive disorder with other specified trauma disorder is granted.” I believe that with the VA it makes a difference if you are black or white. The VA does the same song and dance to afraid to make decision at the RO level. Its easier if the VA waits us all out in the hopes we die off first.

    As far as systematic racism goes I worked at a well known HBCU in the south. I have worked with some of the finest people of color. People who truly wanted and did make a difference in the lives of students and other people around them. I have been thinking about this for some time. The statement. “We Must All Start to See Color.” Is wrong we need to see less color. Hears what what I mean by that. When I walk down the street as a white person no one sees I am invisible because of my color. If I were a black person everyone would see me because of my color and question my character. The same goes for anything else. You go into walmart or any other big chain store you can bet the white person is invisible and the black person’s motives an character are questioned at the door. The black person could be a state trooper out of uniform and it wouldn’t matter. You can bet the color of his skin would matter. And when it comes to employment you better have twice the experience and degrees of the white person. I have sse this first hand even in a HBCU. So my point is this until we as a society start seeing everyone a colorless and start to judge people by the character whats in there heart the experience they have to offer. We will as Chris puts it keep going around on the same hamster wheel.

    To Carney J Bergeson-Meekins your comment “I am going to suggest that we work step-by-step, hand 🖐 in hand.” Is spot on. The whole post is very well written.

    I want to thank Chris for doing this sight. It has allowed me to help other vets who had struggled after 4 years and 5 VSO’s to go from 30% PTSD to 70% PTSD and 100% unemployable. Now if I could only do the same for myself and get the VA to follow
    their own Reg’s. I know by a lot of years of research that there is a very high % of black Veterans that who have received UTH administrative discharges for minor infractions.

    Reply
  2. Floyd Florence

    Chris, I just want to say thank you! We would still be slaves if it weren’t for decent white folk like you. You helped us during the “Underground Railroad” movement, you helped us during the “Civil Rights” movement and you are helping us now… Thanks to all you white people for standing with us during these critical endeavors.

    Speaking of Civil Rights and related amendments, when African Americans win/won certain civil liberties, all people of color benefit (and benefited) from our successes, not just Blacks. In fact, all of America benefits from our collective efforts…

    The Whole World Is Watching!!!

    We need to heal this nation, once and for all… We need to start by telling the Truth about African American history (This is just as much American history!) from the slave trades to being stripped of our heritage to slavery to Civil Rights to today and all the related history in between. (If we don’t learn from our history, we are doomed to repeat it… our own history bear this out).

    Let’s face it… Our collective journey will be a painful one but our eventual victory will be a sweet one!

    Thanks again Chris, Yalitza, and everybody else who’s on board.

    Reply
  3. charles walker

    I enjoyed the blog

    Reply
  4. Carney J Bergeson-Meekins

    The writer caught my attention and here’s why (1) I am an African American Veteran who has experience racism and continue to experience it almost everyday, however I want the reader to understand that this dehumanizing condition known to man kind knows no bounds and has been present all my life and as for the VA and its huge bureaucracy that I continue to battle, even now for more than 45 years. (2) I am from the place where George Floyd was born (3) I live less than three blocks from this event that took place or happened that should have not happened, happened in Minneapolis Minnesota (4) Have served in Law Enforcement, taught “Race Relations in a military setting in Okinawa, Japan and work with Drug Suppression in Okinawa, Japan, visited Danang, Thailand and Saigon and served as Vice Chairman for Minneapolis 3rd Precinct [3PAC Community Support Group] (5) only have a 40% rating, did work in the system, VA, DAV, USPS and Office of Criminal Justice (to include various law firms) and other Federal Agencies. In an effort to take the first step on this “Bridge” I am going to suggest that we work step-by-step, hand 🖐 in hand. (6) I am a Gay Veteran and it has been extremely difficult for me. As veterans and those of us in the legal profession, we should cease to criticize each other. I don’t feel that my duties or performances in the military or out of military, in law enforce and in the legal arena was any less than anyone else’s. You must understand that this is a battle for life in or out of uniform, whether it is blue or brown with pinstripes or camouflage or khaki. It is imperative that we start with ourselves. How can we bring about change? It is time to speak out once again, regardless of how many facets there are and we must work together collectively to establish transparency in reaching a resolution to bigotry, racism and all other “ISM”, but first we must understand the “Human Condition”. How will, you, we, they and them unite to bring about a positive change? How do we keep this from being sweep under the carpet once again. The change has to occur with us who work the system and in the system, from handing someone a glass of water to managing docket’s. This is more than just racist ideology or systemic change or being colorblind or untold and over looked history. How best can we embrace the fear factor. What is it about the brown or black skin, or gay or transgender that perpetuate psychological overtones? If you are gay and in a combat zone, let say Hill 327, you don’t have time to think about sex, your mission is to get the job done and move on and to watch out for each other, that is part of the oath that you took in service. (7) Let’s be clear no ones service any more important than any one else. (8) You see I don’t get to enjoy “White Privilege” what ever that is, but I do get to enjoy the privileges granted by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Can we talk about racism in theology? Thank you for your Platform, perhaps this is an “Open Door”.

    Reply
  5. David A Radowicz

    Just a passing comment. The individual you referred to in the attached blog who battled the VA for 35 yrs caught my attention. I am of the white race 77 yrs of age and a Navy veteran who has battled the VA for 23 years since 1997/98. It finally came to an end favorably in early 2020. I am not aware of any other veteran, regardless of color, who have battled the VA for more then 23 yrs or 35 yrs for that matter. It would be interesting to learn of other veterans who have been fighting the VA for over 23 and/or 35 yrs. I fully understand and agree with your blog posting.

    Reply
    • Chris Attig

      Hi David. Thanks for your post.

      At my law firm, I currently have a case at the Veterans Court involving a Black veteran who has been fighting for service connection for a psychiatric disability that occurred in service. He has been fighting since he left service in 1955: click here to read our brief in the first appeal in his case.

      These aren’t one-off stories…they are quite common. Most of the older cases, in my experience, involve Black and women veterans.

      Thanks for following the VLB!

      Chris

      Reply
      • thecodercody

        that’s disgusting. here in Atlanta the black Vietnam vet was covered in ants who was dying of cancer. His daughter found him like that. i dont think this was racism, just neglect, but, there’s no way to know for sure, and in either case, it’s criminal.

        Reply
  6. johnny smith

    Hi, I thank for your concern, but VA is uniquely position to do something. You make this statement like VA is not racist. This evil is every where, including VA. Very much in Florida, Veteran have to jump thru hoops to get there benefits even when the evidence is in the veteran medical records. They use the word CUE to hide behind, when it is a CRIME. I would like to know who do I contact for these crimes? Before we can stamp out racism we must work together as a team without VA. If anybody sit back say nothing when they know of a racist act going on, your no better than the person who is committing the racist act, in fact your a PART of it.

    Reply
  7. Leroy (Lee) E. Gee

    Chris, thank you for your support! Like I stated several years ago, you are the man! You are a straight-shooter!

    Reply
    • Chris Attig

      Always good to hear from you, Lee! Its folks like you that keep me going on this blog.

      Chris

      Reply
  8. richard silbert

    Racism is stlll here unfortunately. James Dailey a wrongfully convicted Vietnam
    veteran is sitting on death row in Florida. An injustice against one is an injustice against
    all.

    Reply
  9. RTG

    I believe that race was created in order to practice racism race is a social construct it is artificial and really does not exist race has permeated all aspects of life and all areas of human interaction consisting of Economics, Education, Entertainment, Labor, Law, Politics Religion,Sex, and War, Racism is like an Octopus with nine tentacles you can fight one area racism and think that you have it beaten at the same time you are being manipulated by 8 other tentacles simultaneously. Racists are not just in the hills of Alabama or Georgia they can also, be sitting next to you on a train or a bus in California or Chicago they can be teaching your children in school, or they can be the person you pay your rent to or the one who checks you out at the check out aisle in your local supermarket, Racism is a very powerful ideology and it is alive and kicking.

    Reply
    • Chris Attig

      Well said. Can it be stopped? Is there hope that people will give up the ghost on believing others are less-than because of the color of their skin?

      Chris

      Reply
  10. Malcolm

    As I stated before, the BVA. Granted me PTSD in 2015 which I wasn’t informed until 2017.VA never gave me a %.BVA sent me to a C&P exam in Asheville NC. The Dr(???) spent more time in the hallway arguing with her girlfriend. Asheville NC is definitely not good for outside black vets. However;I have been working with an Social worker who is numero uno. I can’t give her name sorry ie don’t want her to get”fired”

    Reply
  11. Roger Yerarwood

    Black and other veteran groups face no more systematic oppression than any other veteran. If this is the best email you can send please remove me from your email list. Regards

    Reply
    • Chris Attig

      That’s a pretty uninformed perspective, Roger.

      Can you describe the systematic oppression that you think Black veterans face? I’m just curious what part of their experience you are comparing to yours.

      Chris

      Reply

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