Black vets accuse VA of unfair treatment
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.
So Hill appealed again. His case remains stuck at the Pittsburgh VA.
“I asked them where it is, but they can't tell you. I think it's sitting on someone's desk,” Hill said. “Will it be done in 10 years? I don't know.
“I'm still fighting for my claim because I'm fighting against the legacy of racism,” he said.
Hill's claim is among more than 900,000 claims or appeals languishing while VA tries to dig out of a record backlog of cases. A Tribune-Review investigation found that veterans face especially long waits in Pittsburgh, the regional office with the nation's third-worst delays caused by the backlog.
A claim filed today in Pittsburgh faces a wait of about two years for a decision, and three more if the veteran appeals a rejection.
Hill fears that his name will be added to the list of 51 Pittsburgh-area veterans or their wives whom the Trib investigation found had died while their appeals sat during the past four years. On average, they waited 4½ years for a ruling before they died.
Of 2,936 cases nationwide on appeal during the past four years that involved dead service members or their spouses, the Trib analysis found that 1,066 were filed by aging veterans who served between 1964 — the year the landmark Voting Rights Act was passed — and 1971, just after Hill came home from the Marines.
The VA acknowledges the largest number of first-time claims come from veterans of the Vietnam War era — about two of every five cases stuck in the glut.
Many black veterans from Vietnam thought that VA was quick to misdiagnose them with substance abuse or sociopathic tendencies instead of treating obvious PTSD symptoms. Lee's group developed as a way to link vets to federal benefits they earned and to ensure that they got decent care, often from private-sector volunteers if the veterans tired of dealing with VA.
Despite its name, 85 percent of vets served by the African American Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Association nationwide aren't black. Increasingly, those seeking Lee's help didn't develop PTSD from combat but from military sexual trauma, especially women vets referred to the group by the VA.
Lee's volunteer organization proved it can cut through the red tape in Seattle. The typical claim filed with the help of Lee or his volunteers zips through the system in fewer than eight months, and appeals rarely last more than 15 — delays less than half the length of those experienced by the typical Pittsburgh veteran of Iraq or Afghanistan.
“I feel sorry for today's veterans because so many of them were constantly going back and forth to war,” Lee told the Trib. “But they can get benefits from VA we couldn't when we came home, and they've got those benefits because of the struggles of the Vietnam War's veterans.”
Carl Prine is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7826 or firstname.lastname@example.org.