(FinalCall.com) – Black war veterans are more likely than White veterans to experience post traumatic stress disorder but are less likely to receive disability benefits for the disease, according to a federal lawsuit filed in San Francisco against the Department of Veterans Affairs.
PTSD is a psychiatric disorder suddenly brought on by life threatening experiences that result in clear, biological changes, psychological symptoms and impairment of the ability to function well in life. It is also “a predictable reaction to being in a life-threatening situation with no means of escape. It can be triggered in an instant by the horror of seeing a mutilated body or witnessing a violent death,” the lawsuit states.
Arguments in the lawsuit, which pushes for better care for veterans injured in Iraq and Afghanistan, started April 21 in U.S. District Court. Veterans for Common Sense and Veterans United for Truth, the lawsuit’s plaintiffs, say unless the U.S. institutes systemic and drastic measures to care for injured veterans, the numbers of broken families, unemployed and homeless veterans, cases of drug abuse and alcoholism, and the burdens on health care and social services systems will be incalculable. That includes the impact of poor care for Black soldiers with PTSD, they add.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs denied charges that discrimination and racism exacerbate the stress of wartime service and contributes to PTSD, in a written response to Veterans for Common Sense et al vs. Peake. When psychiatrists treat Blacks for PTSD, they are “much less likely to attribute the PTSD to combat than when they treat Whites, leading to a denial of services at the VA,” the lawsuit charges.
Veterans also say that over the last six years, the Bush administration has systematically denied veterans the health care they were promised and that they went to court as a last resort.
Suicide rates alarming
“We are here because veterans are committing suicide at an alarming rate,” Atty. Arturo Gonzalez told U.S. District Court Judge Samuel Conti, citing government documents showing that 18 U.S. war veterans kill themselves every day. “More of these veterans are dying in the United States than in combat–that’s wrong.”
“There is only one person on Earth who can do anything to help these men and women,” he told the judge, “Your honor, these veterans need help. The VA has demonstrated that they won’t do it on their own.”
The veterans’ groups are asking the judge to order the Department of Veterans Affairs to fully implement its own mental health strategic plan, which they argue has been left to wither on the vine; to comply with an internal VA memo setting out “specific programs intended to stop the suicides;” and to shorten claim times.
In his early May closing argument, Justice Department attorney Daniel Bensing countered that “the VA is providing world-class health care across the board” and dismissed as “immaterial” the fact that 18 veterans commit suicide every day.
“We don’t dispute that suicide is a major issue among veterans,” he said, but “there is no evidence that suicidal veterans have been turned away.”
“Extensive care is being provided,” he said.
But internal VA documents made public at the trial appeared to paint a different picture.
Hiding serious problems?
In one e-mail made public during the trial, the head of the VA’s Mental Health division, Dr. Ira Katz, advised a media representative not to tell reporters that 1,000 veterans receiving care at the VA try to kill themselves every month.
“Shh!” the e-mail begins.
“Our suicide prevention coordinators are identifying about 1,000 suicide attempts per month among the veterans we see in our medical facilities. Is this something we should (carefully) address ourselves in some sort of release before someone stumbles on it?” the e-mail concludes. Leading Democrats on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee have since called for Dr. Katz’s resignation.
Another set of documents showed that in the six months leading up to March 31, 2008, 1,467 veterans died waiting to learn if their disability claims would be approved by the government. A third set of documents showed that veterans who appeal a VA decision to deny their disability claim have to wait an average of 1,608 days, or nearly four and a half years, for their answer.
These documents, which contained information that journalists and veterans’ groups had been trying to obtain for months, only came to light because of the discovery process of the trial, which required high-ranking government officials to give depositions under oath.
“No matter how this trial turns out, it has given us a wealth of information,” said Amy Fairweather of the nonprofit group Swords to Plowshares, which provides counseling, employment and housing to returning veterans. “We can use the information that’s been discovered to show how to do things better.”
Ms. Fairweather said she hopes Judge Samuel Conti will grant the veterans’ groups request for a Special Master to monitor the Department of Veterans Affairs’ compliance with its mental health strategic plan.
“When someone’s watching over you it’s an incentive to do your job,” she said. “Right now, there’s no accountability.”
As the trial wrapped up, Judge Conti appeared to be friendly to the arguments of the veterans groups, but the judge, an 86-year-old World War II veteran who was originally appointed to the bench by Richard Nixon, expressed a concern that he not overreach his authority.
“This court is restricted by statutes and case law,” he said, asking both sides to file legal arguments on his jurisdiction.
“Whatever I do, one side or the other is going to appeal,” he noted, expressing a desire that his decision not be overturned by a higher court.
Speaking with reporters afterwards, representatives for the veterans and the government both agreed that the losing side will likely appeal the case all the way to the Supreme Court.
Black soldiers ignored by VA
According to Sidney Lee, president of the African American Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Association, studies showed the majority of Blacks in Vietnam were combat soldiers (80 percent), who would experience PTSD, a significant number for life, upon return to the states, but doctors refused to diagnose the disease.
His experience dates back to the 1970s, when he served as a U.S. Army Airborne Ranger. Most Blacks were discharged by therapists for failure to adjust, personal disorders, schizophrenia and other illnesses that could not be treated and were not considered service connected disabilities, he said.
“It’s documented by the PTSD History Museum in Hawaii that all of the studies that occurred were done on all of the other ethnic groups, other than African Americans, believe it or not until the ’90s. According to the Pentagon Papers, the reason for this is it provided a legal form of genocide. The reason they had more African Americans in Vietnam in combat positions is because, they said, African Americans were more suited for that war primarily because of their surroundings and the environments that they grew up in,” Mr. Lee said. The government reasoned that since Blacks lived in ghettos, and often experienced fighting, shootings and stabbings, why not send them into the jungle, he added.
According to the Census Bureau, there were 2.4 million Black military veterans in the U.S. in 2006.
Mr. Lee charges a lack of proper treatment of Black vets continues. In Mississippi, though wounded veterans who run the 850th Transportation Company Army Reserve Unit have been activated to return to Iraq for a fourth time, they only received 10-20 percent disability benefits while their White counterparts received 80-90 percent for the same illnesses, he said.
His organization is seeking a congressional investigation into treatment of Black veterans in Mississippi and Tennessee.
Veterans’ advocates say an overburdened and already failing system is worse on Blacks for a number of reasons. According to a California-based psychiatrist, who asked for anonymity, one reason is tours of duty for today’s wars seem endless.
“Vietnam veterans had 12 months. Army, Marines had 13 months. Navy would go in 6 months, come back and go back 6 months. The Vietnam veterans, even though it was hell, knew they were coming home in 12 months. But these people are going home; dodging the bullet one time, and being sent back a second and third tour,” Dr. B. told The Final Call.
Dr. B. has worked for 21 years as a trauma therapist for Vietnam and other combat veterans and for sexually traumatized women. He requested anonymity for this interview because he is in a legal fight against his former employer. The psychiatrist said his problems are the result of trying to help veterans gain health and other benefits.
According to Dr. B, Vietnam vets are allowed to file claims at any time to offset injustices done to them. Veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars must file claims within two years, he said.
Black psychiatrists studied and sounded the alarm about PTSD for decades, but were ignored because until the 1990s, the military, especially combat service, was predominantly minority, while Whites went into the National Guard and Army Reserve for extra money for college, Mr. Lee told The Final Call.
Now that reservists are going through 6 to 8 week indoctrination courses and put in harms way multiple times, things are starting to change, the advocate said.
Anyone in the military and Blacks who have committed to military careers must get medical attention, and document problems and treatment to protect themselves, and their families, Mr. Lee advised.
“If you blow your nose and it bleeds too much, go see a doctor. I don’t say ride the sick book and go for the sake of going, but if you’re ill, see someone. We’ve tried through the Association of Black Psychologists to bring more cultural relevance because these Black soldiers should be equally compensated for what they do, as all people, regardless of who they are,” Mr. Lee said.
Hearings in the lawsuit are expected to end in May.