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CEO Chas Sampson on How the Military, VA Disadvantage Black Veterans

Written by Chas Sampson, CEO & Chairman — Seven Principles

According to a report published by the United States Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) in 2017, marginalized racial groups comprised some 22.6% of all Veterans in the US in 2014. This percentage is projected to increase to some 35.7% by 2040. Additionally, the report states that between 2005 and 2014, “the number of minority Veterans who use at least one VA benefit or service has steadily grown from 44.1%.” Today, in 2022, that number is likely closer to — if not higher than — 50%.

Despite roughly half of all minority Veterans claiming benefits and/or service from the VA, a disparity still exists in the Military’s and VA’s treatment for Black Veterans. In fact, this disparity has been perpetuated for decades in no small part due to the historic systematic racism and prejudice within the US’ government and government-adjacent institutions. As a Black former US Army serviceman and federal decisions officer for the VA — and now as a Black Veteran and entrepreneur — there is no better time than Black History Month for me to help explain these racial disparities and help other Black Veterans and service members understand how it inherently puts them at a disadvantage.

Uncovering historical military disparities for Black Veterans

Roughly 18 months prior to the official end of World War II in 1945, the US government approved legislation that would become known as the GI Bill; a new act that would allow Veterans returning home from the war to access federal aid to help them, “ homes, get jobs and pursue an education, and in general [help] them adjust to civilian life.” Black Veterans, however, found themselves returning home from the war to a country rampant with racist segregationist Jim Crow laws, preventing them from accessing most benefits the GI Bill was supposed to offer them.

As a result, most Black Veterans who were able to receive GI funding for education wound up at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). These HBCUs were largely underfunded and unequipped for such an influx of new students compared to their white counterparts. Additionally, because many Black Veterans at the time were unable to access greater formal sources of secondary education, their access to college-level education (and thus, higher-paying jobs) was severely limited. Following the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, the GI Bill was temporarily discontinued until 1984 when it was reintroduced by Mississippi congressman G.V. “Sonny” Montgomery.

However, this gap in the bill’s legislation prevented an entirely new generation of Black Veterans from accessing the benefits it was meant to provide them, including federal funding to pay for homes and higher education. The ripple effect of this gap is still felt by many families and descendants of Black Veterans today.

Current disadvantages for Black Veterans

More currently, there are still disparities between how Black service people and Veterans are treated by both the Military and VA. For example, according to the Department of Defense’s 2020 report on diversity and inclusion, only some 8% of active-duty military officers are Black, compared to the 73% of white active-duty officers.

Additionally, Black Veterans are far more likely than other racial or ethnic groups to utilize VA benefits, with nearly 54% doing so, according to a 2017 report from the National Center for Veterans Analysis and Statistics. The report also mentions that disabled Black Veterans are some 78% more likely to seek treatment from a VA healthcare facility, and even though Black Veterans are more likely to sustain severe injuries during their Military service — with some 31% having a disability rate of 70% or higher — less than half of all Black Veterans understand the extent of benefits the VA is meant to provide them.

For those unfamiliar with the VA’s process for filing claims and awarding benefits to Veterans, I can speak from experience to its complexity. Any errors or mistakes made on a claim, waiting too long to file it, or failing to obtain the opinion of a medical professional on a condition that could make a Veteran eligible to receive benefits, can render the claim denied by the VA.

When this happens, it’s not uncommon for a Veteran to seek alternative forms of self-treatment for their conditions—nearly 25% of which are related to PTSD resulting from military service. Although, particularly for Black Veterans, this creates additional layers of risk. Such was the case with disabled Black Iraq War Veteran Sean Worsley, who was arrested in Alabama in 2018 and sentenced to 5 years in prison in 2020 for possessing marijuana legally prescribed to him in Arizona for his condition. While Worsley is just one example of how the VA’s internal structure disadvantages Black Veterans, there are hundreds (if not thousands or more) of similar cases that exemplify the prejudiced, arbitrary roadblocks Black Veterans face in the US.

Final remarks

As disparaging as some of these statistics are, there may finally be some hope on the horizon for Black Veterans. On November 30, 2021, President Biden signed a bill mandating a government watchdog’s review of claims regarding racial inequalities in how the VA approves and distributes benefits for Veterans.

President Biden was quoted as saying, “We've heard from veterans of color who upon returning home from their service are treated differently from white veterans," continuing to say that the bill, “will help us understand how this happened, keep better records, expose the facts to the light of day and allow us to do the necessary work making sure that all of our nation's veterans–all of them–are treated with equal dignity.”

The watchdog’s report is currently expected to be due by August 2022. Whatever institutional changes it suggests or demands, as well as how those might mitigate the racial disparities Black Veterans face, remains to be seen.


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