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Black veterans are less likely to be approved for benefits, according to VA documents

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Internal documents from the Department of Veterans Affairs show that Black veterans are much less likely to get approved for benefits for conditions like PTSD. This information comes from a lawsuit brought by a Black Vietnam veteran and a Yale law clinic. As NPR's Quil Lawrence reports, there's evidence the VA has been aware of this racial disparity for years.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Richard Brookshire is with the Black Veterans Project. He was a combat medic in Afghanistan. In recent years, a whistleblower contacted him and confirmed what he'd been hearing, and there were documents.

RICHARD BROOKSHIRE: An internal report that was drawn up in 2017 so that the VA began to look into racial disparities - that it looked at PTSD explicitly and found really stark racial disparities in PTSD denial rates faced by Black vets.

LAWRENCE: This is a huge part of what VA does - decides if a veteran has PTSD or other injuries related to military service and then pays them disability. The document showed that non-Hispanic Blacks who filed a claim for PTSD got rejected more than average by a solid 12 percentage points. In a recording shared with NPR, the whistleblower describes how this internal report was produced for senior VA officials in 2017. Then, Brookshire says, it was buried.

BROOKSHIRE: And essentially, they stopped looking into the matter any further. They didn't look at any other disparities in any other area.

LAWRENCE: At his monthly press conference this week, VA secretary Denis McDonough said he had not seen the draft report and didn't answer specific questions. He instead pointed to the VA's equity task force, announced earlier this month, to address this exact problem. But he said the task force is still ramping up.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DENIS MCDONOUGH: And job No. 1 for that team will be ensuring that every veteran is able to access the benefits and the care that he or she - that they have earned.

LAWRENCE: VA is currently implementing the biggest benefits expansion in decades - the PACT Act - which covers toxic exposures during service. McDonough is concerned that Black veterans might miss out.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MCDONOUGH: Black vets have served and sacrificed for this country in every conflict we fought, and particularly so in those conflicts covered by the PACT Act.

LAWRENCE: Black veterans have historically faced higher rates of other-than-honorable discharge from the military, which can mean no VA benefits. Going back to World War II, they often couldn't access GI Bill home loans and college funds. But Brookshire says this kind of inequity is not ancient history - it's still happening now.

BROOKSHIRE: But you're talking about tens of thousands of Black veterans who were affected by these decisions just in the last few years, let alone when you talk about the decades of disparities that have persisted.

LAWRENCE: The VA did not give a date for when the equity task force would be operational or when it would make its first recommendations.

Quil Lawrence, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Quil Lawrence is a New York-based correspondent for NPR News, covering veterans' issues nationwide. He won a Robert F. Kennedy Award for his coverage of American veterans and a Gracie Award for coverage of female combat veterans. In 2019 Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America honored Quil with its IAVA Salutes Award for Leadership in Journalism.