As a young man in Memphis, Tennessee, Robert Dabney Jr. wanted to pave the way to a better life for his family. So, two weeks after graduating from high school in 1998, at age 18, he joined the US Army.
During nine years of service which included two tours in Iraq, Dabney was a combat medical specialist. But after leaving the military in 2007 and returning to Memphis, married with children, he struggled to see what he had gained from his service.
“I had traded my youth, ambition and vigor for a limited future solely because of my mental health,” said Dabney, who was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression in 2013.
His experience seeking treatment through the Veterans Health System was plagued with challenges, he said. After navigating the system as a black veteran, he wondered if he could help others find more culturally appropriate services that the federal government seemed ill-equipped to provide.
Testimonies like Dabney’s were shared at the first-ever national policy conference for black veterans in Washington on Thursday. Representatives from nearly 20 military advocacy groups of color were collaborating on a legislative agenda addressing longstanding racial, economic and social inequalities faced by more than 2 million black American veterans.
“For many people in black and brown (veteran) communities, we’re starting from a different place in life,” said Dabney, 42. “Being able to speak to people who started from this place, who have a similar mindset to yours as they came through the military, has a different meaning for us.
In addition to disparities in the military justice system, homelessness and unemployment, federal veterans benefits data shows that black service members after Sept. 11 disability claims were granted at lower rates to those of their white counterparts. Advocates say racial inequality in access to veterans’ benefits is suffocating or, worse, upsetting the lives of those who proudly served their country.
“The system doesn’t work for us, we do,” said Victor LaGroon, president of the Black Veterans Empowerment Council, which organized Thursday’s conference. “We need to have these systemic and legislative discussions because, until there’s full transparency and accountability, people are going to keep skirting around the issues.”
Scheduled speakers include secretaries from the Departments of Veterans Affairs and Labor, as well as officials from select state and local veterans service agencies.
Richard Brookshire, a former Army combat medic who served in the Afghan war, said a major goal was to help the black veteran community coalesce around ‘what is achievable’ in a broader agenda that also targets historical inequalities dating back to black veterans serving in the World War. II.
“There has to be a critical mass in the black veterans community to demand it,” said Brookshire, who co-founded the Black Veterans Project. “The seed has been planted and we will begin to see the tree bear fruit.”
The Black Veterans Empowerment Council was formed in 2020 amid the national toll following the police killing of George Floyd, as a roundtable of black veterans groups to advise the House Veterans Affairs Committee. Council members said part of their job is to acquire data to prove how unequal access black veterans have to the benefits system.
According to Veterans Benefits Administration records analyzed by the Veterans Legal Services Clinic at Yale Law School and reviewed by The Associated Press, there are statistically significant differences in disability claims outcomes for black and white veterans. Although disability claim approval rates are low overall, they are significantly lower for black veterans.
Between 2002 and 2020, black veterans had the lowest application approval rate, at 30.3%, compared to their non-black counterparts. White veterans had 37.1% of their applications approved, while Hispanic veterans had a 36% approval rate and Asian or Pacific Islander veterans had a 30.7% rate.
Linda Mann, co-founder of the African American Redress Network at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, led a group of students who conducted additional analysis of the benefit data. According to their findings, disparities in how black veterans are assessed on the severity of their condition amounted to lower disability awards and reduced eligibility for other VA benefits.
These findings are based on historic racial inequalities in veterans’ benefits that date back to the integration of the armed forces in the late 1940s. Black military personnel who fought in World War II were denied or prevented from take full advantage of housing and education benefits through the GI Bill. Black Korean War veterans had similar experiences with the program. Proponents say the generational effects of this discrimination, in terms of wealth, are still being felt today.
“What most people would typically say is that we went through the civil rights movement and things are better,” Mann said, but that wasn’t confirmed by Freedom of Justice statistics. Information Act that advocacy groups have received.
“Continued inequity on the part of the military and the VA has followed not only the FOIA data we reviewed, but also the practices and policies,” Mann said.
VA press secretary Terrence Hayes said the Biden administration’s emphasis on fairness in the federal government has had significant implications for the agency’s approach to granting. benefits “to all veterans, and in particular to historically marginalized and underserved veterans”.
“We used the voice of veterans as our North Star,” Hayes said in a statement.
Last year, the Black Veterans Project and the National Veterans Council for Legal Redress sued the VA over its Freedom of Information Act requests regarding benefits data by race. They have gained access. In April, the White House released a summary of the VA’s equity action planin which the agency recognized race and gender disparities for access to veterans benefits.
Dabney eventually paved a better path for himself, going to college and becoming a hospital chaplain in Chicago. But it took overcoming a descent into alcoholism, infidelity and self-neglect before he found his calling.
After his diagnosis of PTSD and depression, he was connected with mental health counseling services through the VA at a community outpatient center near Chicago. The assigned counselor, a white woman, frustrated Dabney because he felt she couldn’t understand the complexities of his identities as a veteran and a black man from rocky beginnings in Memphis.
“I got to the point where I was just saying ‘Yeah. Yeah, that’s it,” Dabney recalled. “Instead of standing up for myself, I started to shape what I was saying based on what I thought they could understand. In doing so, I couldn’t really open up and present myself fully to them.
He was ready to give up, but what he really needed was a peer encouraging him to persevere, he said.
Now Dabney runs a peer learning program at the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance in Chicago. The program helps other black veterans through a network of peer-led mental health resources.
“It’s these relationships that encourage individuals to seek additional help, to seek help from clinicians,” Dabney said.
Walidah Bennett, founder and director of a multi-faith veterans initiative at DePaul University in Chicago, works to provide black churches and clergy with resources to serve veterans in their congregations.
Bennett’s son, Saad Muhammad, an Iraq War veteran, committed suicide in 2013, and in the 10 years since his death, she has created 15 community sites for veterans in crisis. Suicide rates among black veterans rose from 11.8% to 14.5% between 2001 and 2019, though rates remain highest among white veterans, according to VAs. 2021 Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report.
“If we had had the community spaces that we have today, it could have been very helpful to my son,” Bennett said.
AP writer Larry Fenn in New York contributed.
Morrison is a New York-based member of the AP’s Race and Ethnicity team. Follow him on Twitter: https://www.twitter.com/aaronlmorrison.