Black Vets Accuse VA of Unfair Treatment

Article excerpt

Marine Corps Pfc. Ron Hill encountered "weakness" in his left knee so severe that he was restricted from field duty, marching, crawling, running and even prolonged standing, military records show.

With a buckling knee and an ailing back, Hill took an honorable discharge from the Corps in 1970 and returned to Homewood, where he sought help by applying for disability compensation and medical care benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs' Pittsburgh office. He assumed the VA would agree with the Marines, who linked the logistics clerk's disabilities to his uniformed service, and honor his claim.

But VA denied the claim and later lost his health records. Hill refiled in 2008, was rejected again, and appealed.

Last year, the VA's Board of Veterans Appeals determined that the Pittsburgh field office bungled Hill's 1970 case, and awarded him a service-connected disability rating on his knee.

Hill, 67, who retired in 2005 from his job as the first black major in the Allegheny County Jail, said he believes VA "was a racist institution" in the years after he returned from Vietnam, and that that affected the handling of his benefits claim.

"The way we were treated when we came home was different from white veterans," said Hill of Penn Hills. "Now that we're older, we're refiling (for benefits) because we want the injustice to be rectified. But VA hopes we die. They're going to string us out because the older we get, the less likely they'll have to pay us."

VA officials declined to comment for this story, but have publicly acknowledged that minorities and female veterans often were treated as second-class citizens by VA and other federal agencies, despite wounds, illnesses and injuries as serious as those that white GIs suffered.

VA's National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study, released in 1990, reported that black and Hispanic veterans suffered higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health problems than whites, largely because they were more likely to serve in ground units and experience combat.

Other studies during the next six years revealed that compared with white veterans, blacks were more likely to have been exposed to Agent Orange defoliants in Vietnam and more susceptible to ailments linked to dioxin, including heart disease and cancer.

For mental health problems related to combat overseas, black veterans were less likely to take part in VA group therapy and prone to quit treatment before they were healed, studies found.

"We weren't being treated fairly for either medical care or benefits," said Sidney Lee, a retired Army Ranger who fought in Vietnam and in 1996 founded African American Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Association, a Lakewood, Wash.-based service organization accredited by the VA and Congress to help vets, regardless of ethnicity.

"Even if you went to VA and you were very fortunate to get in the door, they acted almost as if they were afraid to touch you."

Though the VA's Pittsburgh claims office agreed to pay a portion of the bill for Hill's knee after the appeals board decision, it refused to reimburse him back to 1970 and skimped on compensation for the continuing degeneration of his knee -- a diagnosis the agency's doctors charted during the past five years. …