According to a federal lawsuit filed by the Yale Law School Veterans Legal Services, The United States Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) administered disability benefits in a racially discriminatory manner for decades, disproportionately rejecting Black veteran disability claims at a much higher rate than White veterans.
The lawsuit, filed on behalf of Conley Monk Jr., a 74-year-old former United States Marine Corps member, asserts that the VA’s disability compensation claim determinations systematically discriminated against Black veterans from 2001 to 2020. Monk is demanding that he be awarded compensatory damages according to the lawsuit. After the VA did not respond to an administrative claim Monk filed in February 2022, Yale Law School’s Veterans Legal Services Clinic filed the suit under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) for negligence, negligent infliction of emotional distress, and negligent supervision.
According to the suit, Monk voluntarily enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps in 1968 and was deployed to Vietnam a year later, according to the lawsuit. After four months of combat, Monk’s unit was pulled out of Vietnam and temporarily stationed in Okinawa, Japan, where he began to fully experience the onset of his Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Unfortunately for Monk and millions of other Veterans, PTSD was not recognized as a medical condition until 1980.
According to the lawsuit, Monk was sent to base prison in Okinawa after two separate altercations with his unit he believes were caused by his PTSD. He was told that he’d have to stay there until he signed papers agreeing to an Undesirable discharge – now known as an “Other than Honorable” discharge. Monk signed these papers without understanding that he’d be forfeiting his eligibility for veteran benefits, the suit says.
After leaving the Marine Corps, Monk filed for unemployment compensation but was denied after the VA did a Character of Discharge (COD) determination, finding that he was “discharged under dishonorable conditions and is not therefore entitled to any benefits administered by the Veterans’ Administration.”
According to the suit, the VA improperly denied Monk’s applications for education, housing, and disability benefits for nearly 50 years after he developed PTSD in Vietnam, even despite a psychiatrist’s diagnosis in 2011 that Monk had a severe case of PTSD arising from his service in Vietnam. Only after the military upgraded his discharge status, did the VA eventually grant Monk his benefits in 2015 and again in 2020, but the lawsuit says that he was never fully compensated for the harm caused through the repeated denials over a fifty year period.
The suit cites the federal government’s own studies which concluded that Black servicemembers were substantially more likely than their White counterparts to face military justice or disciplinary action. The lawsuit alleges that VA officials should have known that racial bias affected the discharge status of Black veterans when they relied on it to make disability compensation determinations.
An Equity Action Plan released by the VA announced that it is studying “disparities in mental health disability compensation rates, particularly for Black veterans who are more likely to apply for compensation for PTSD than other veterans but less likely to be granted compensation.”
According to Monk, the VA’s discriminatory practices go far beyond damaging Veterans to even blocking Black families from attaining generational wealth. In the suit, Monk references his father, who served in a segregated unit in the U.S. Army during World War II.