Ex-Marine sues Veterans Affairs over racial discrimination in benefits decision process
Ex-Marine Conley Monk, Jr. volunteered to serve during the Vietnam War. He drove a bullet-riddled transport vehicle, moving troops and equipment through combat zones. Despite earning several medals, he got a less-than-honorable discharge in 1971 when he got into two fights, which he blames on undiagnosed PTSD.
That less-than-honorable discharge — or “bad paper” — kicked off a decades-long series of denials when Monk applied for VA benefits like disability compensation, home loans and college tuition.
“I had to work extra hard in order to survive and take care of my family, as well as to get my education,” Monk said.
His “bad paper” also cut him off from health care at the VA hospital, and for a while, he was homeless.
“I was repeatedly denied,” Monk said. “But it wasn't like I gave up. I kept fighting.”
The defense department eventually upgraded his discharge to honorable in 2015 — over four decades later. In the meantime, he founded the National Veterans Council for Legal Redress, an advocacy group in Connecticut that helps other veterans with bad paper discharges.
His group partnered with the Veterans Legal Services Clinic at Yale Law School. Together, they obtained 20 years of disability claims records from the VA that show the average denial rate for disability compensation claims from Black veterans was 29.5%, six points higher than the 24.2% rate for white veterans.
According to Monk, these disability claims records show the VA is more likely to pay claims from white veterans than from their Black peers, and the records became the foundation for Monk’s lawsuit in federal court. He’s accused the agency of racial bias in its claims decision process.
“Every year from 2001 to 2020, there was a statistically significant difference in claims outcomes for Black and white veterans,” said Adam Henderson, an intern with the Yale Law School veterans clinic representing Monk.
“What that means is that a Black veteran who served honorably could walk into the VA, file a disability claim, and be at a significantly higher chance of that claim being denied,” Henderson said.
The disparities are evidence of a benefits determination system that is broken according to Henderson.
“VA leadership failed to maintain a system of benefits that was free from racial discrimination,” Henderson said. “They were negligent…They either didn't take action or didn't have a system that they could track the data outcomes.”
He said the lawsuit, filed in federal district court, could help pinpoint where in the system the discrimination occurs — whether that’s during medical exams, the disability rating process, or somewhere else.
A spokesperson for the VA said the agency already knows that racial disparities exist in benefits decisions and that it’s studying ways to address them, including how discharge status disproportionately impacts Black veterans. It's also offering one-on-one meetings with veterans who are having trouble getting their claims approved.
“We are taking steps to ensure that our claims process combats institutional racism, rather than perpetuating it; re-evaluating our policies to equitably serve veterans who were wrongly given Other Than Honorable discharges; and proactively reaching out to veterans with Other Than Honorable discharges to make sure they know that they may be able to access VA benefits and health care,” said Terrence Hayes, VA press secretary, in the statement.
For Henderson, that’s not enough.
“Comments in the press are great, but we actually want some changes,” Henderson said. “We want to make sure that the VA is held accountable for their system.”
Richard Brookshire, an Army veteran and founder of the Black Veterans Project, said the VA’s acknowledgement is encouraging but the agency needs to do more to help Black veterans get access to benefits.
“There are now generations of Black vets who weren't able to get access to specific benefits,” Brookshire said. “And at the end of the day, you're talking about quite literally tens of billions, if not hundreds of billions of dollars of economic support denied to Black veterans.”
Brookshire said the country needs to hold much wider and transparent conversations on equity within the VA.
“They can't be siloed in the institution — we need a congressional hearing about this history,” Brookshire said. “We need all the facts on the table, and we need veterans who've been affected to feel as though there's actual repair and redress happening.”
At a press conference announcing the lawsuit, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), a member of the Armed Services and Veterans Affairs committees, called Conley Monk a “hero” and said the racial disparities in the disability claims process were “unacceptable.”
“The causes for these disparate outcomes has to be explained by both the VA and the Department of Defense,” Blumenthal said.
Monk, now 74 years old, said it’s important to him that no other Black veterans find themselves in his situation because the harm he and his family have suffered has been immeasurable.
“It was like 45 years — almost 45 years — of being absent from the monies that I should have rightfully received,” Conley said.