As a youth in Memphis, Tennessee, Robert Dabney Jr. wanted to forge a path that could set up his family for a better life. So in 1998, two weeks after high school graduation, at the age of 18, he joined the US Army.
During nine years of service, which included two visits to Iraq, Dabney was a combat medicine specialist. But when he left the military in 2007 and returned to Memphis, married with children, he struggled to see what he gained from his service.
“I exchanged my youth, ambition and passion for the future, which is limited only by my mental health,” said Dabney, who was formally diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression in 2013.
He said that his experience of receiving treatment through the health care system of ex-servicemen was fraught with challenges. After navigating the system as a black veteran, he wondered if he could help others find the culturally competent services the federal government seemed ill-equipped to provide.
Dabney-like testimony will be shared at the first ever National Policy Conference for Black Veterans in Washington on Thursday. Representatives from nearly 20 advocacy groups for service members of the color scheme to collaborate on a legislative agenda to address the longstanding racial, economic and social inequalities facing more than 2 million black American veterans.
“For many people in the black and brown (veterans) communities, we are starting from a different place in life,” said the 42-year-old war veteran. “Being able to talk to people who started from that place, who have the same mindset as yours as they went through the military, has a different meaning to us.”
In addition to inequalities in the military justice system, homelessness and unemployment, federal veterans benefits data shows the number of black service members following Sept. 11 disability claims are awarded at lower rates than their white counterparts. Advocates say the racial disparity in veterans benefits undermines access or, worse, affects the lives of those who proudly served their country.
“The system isn’t accommodating us, we’re accommodating it,” said Victor LaGrone, president of the Black Veterans Empowerment Council, who organized Thursday’s conference. “We’ve got to have these systemic and legislative discussions, because until there is complete transparency and accountability, people will keep postponing issues.”
Slated speakers include secretaries from the departments of Veterans Affairs and Labor, as well as officials from some state and local Veterans Services agencies.
Richard Brookshire, a former Army combat medic who served in the Afghanistan War, said that a major goal of the conference is to help the black veterans community around “what is actionable” in a broader agenda, which is historical. It also targets the inequality that black veterans have. Serving in World War II.
“There needs to be a significant public in the black veteran community to demand this,” said Brookshire, who co-founded the Black Veterans Project. “The seed has been planted and we’re about to start seeing the tree bear fruit.”
The Black Veterans Empowerment Council was formed in 2020 to advise the House Veterans Affairs Committee as a roundtable of Black Veterans groups, amid a national countdown following the killing of George Floyd by police. Council members said part of their work over the past two years has been obtaining data to prove how black veterans have unequal access 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 claim outcomes for black and white veterans. Although disability claim approval rates are low across the board, they are significantly lower for black veterans.
Between 2002 and 2020, black veterans had the lowest claim approval rate of 30.3% compared to their non-black counterparts. White veterans had 37.1% of their claims approved, while Hispanic veterans had an approval rate of 36% and Asian or Pacific Islander veterans had an approval rate of 30.7%.
Linda Mann, co-founder of the African American Prevention Network at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, led a group of students who conducted an additional analysis on benefit data. According to their findings, disparities in how black veterans are rated based on the severity of their condition amount to reduced disability compensation and decreased eligibility for other VA benefits.
These findings draw on historical racial disparities in veterans’ benefits dating back to the integration of the armed services in the late 1940s. Black service members who fought in World War II were either denied or barred from taking full advantage of housing and educational benefits through the GI Bill. Black veterans of the Korean War had similar experiences with the program. Advocates say the generational effects of that discrimination in terms of money are still being felt today.
“Most people generally say that we have gone through the civil rights movement and things are better,” Mann said.
“The continuing disparity between the military and the VA not only looked at FOIA data, but also in practices and policies,” Mann said.
The VA did not provide comment in time for publication.
Last year, the Black Veterans Project and the National Veterans Council for Legal Redress sued the VA for benefit data from race over its Freedom of Information Act request. He won the entrance. In April, the White House released a summary of the VA’s Equity Action Plan, in which the agency acknowledged race and gender disparities for veterans benefit access.
Dabney eventually paved a better path for himself, going to college and becoming pastor of the hospital in Chicago. But before he could find his calling, he overcame a descent into alcoholism, infidelity, and self-neglect.
After being diagnosed with PTSD and depression, he was connected to mental health counseling services through the VA at a community-based outpatient center near Chicago. The appointed counselor, a white woman, dismayed Dabney because she felt she could not relate to the complexities of her identity as a war veteran and a black man from a rough start in Memphis.
“I got to the point where I’d just say ‘yes.’ Yes, that’s all,'” Dabney recalled. “Instead of advocating for myself, I based what I thought I said, Based on that I started moulding. In doing so, I was not able to really openly present my full self to them. ,
He said he was ready to give up, but what he really needed was a colleague encouraging him to stick with it.
Now, Dabney manages a peer trainee program at the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance in Chicago. The program helps other black veterans through a growing network of peer-directed mental health resources.
“It’s those relationships that encourage individuals to seek more help from physicians,” Dabney said.
Walidah Bennett, founder and director of the Multi-Faith Veterans Initiative at DePaul University in Chicago, is working to provide resources for black churches and pastors to serve veterans in their congregations.
Bennett’s son, a veteran of the Iraq War named Saad Muhammad, died by suicide in 2013, and in the 10 years since his death, he has established 15 community sites for veterans in crisis. According to the VA’s 2021 Annual Report on Veteran Suicide Prevention, the suicide rate among black veterans increased from 11.8% to 14.5% between 2001 and 2019, although rates are highest among white veterans.
“If we had the community spaces that we have today, it could have been of great help to my son,” Bennett said.
Morrison is a New York-based member of the AP’s race and ethnicity team. Follow him on Twitter: