As a young man in Memphis, Tennessee, Robert Dabney Jr. wanted to blaze a path that could set his family up for a better life. So two weeks after high school graduation in 1998, at age 18, he joined the U.S. Army.

During nine years of service that included two tours in Iraq, Dabney was a combat medical specialist. But after he left the Army in 2007 and returned to Memphis, married with children, he struggled to see what he’d gained from his service.

“I had exchanged my youth, ambition and vigor for a future that is limited just because of my mental health,” said Dabney, who was formally diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression in 2013.

His experience seeking treatment through the veterans health care system was plagued with challenges, he said. After navigating the system as a Black veteran, he wondered if he might help others find more culturally competent services that the federal government seemed ill-equipped to provide.

Testimonies like Dabney’s 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 color plan to collaborate on a legislative agenda to address longstanding racial, economic and social inequities facing more than 2 million Black American veterans.

“For many people from Black and brown (veterans) communities, we’re starting from a different place in life,” the 42-year-old war veteran said. “Being able to talk to people who started from that place, who have a mindset similar to yours as they went through the military, has a different meaning to us.”

In addition to disparities in the military justice system, homelessness, and unemployment, federal veterans benefits data show Black service members’ post-Sept. 11 disability claims have been granted at lower rates than their white counterparts. Advocates say racial inequality in veterans’ benefit access stifles or, worse, upends the lives of those who proudly served their country.

“The system isn’t accommodating us, we’re accommodating it,” said Victor LaGroon, chairman of the Black Veterans Empowerment Council, which organized Thursday’s conference. “We’ve got to have these systemic and legislative discussions because, until there’s full transparency and accountability, people are going to continue to skirt the issues.”

Slated speakers include the secretaries of the Veterans Affairs and Labor departments, as well as officials from some state and local veterans service agencies.

Richard Brookshire, a former Army combat medic who served in the Afghanistan War, said a major goal of the conference is to help the Black veterans community coalesce around “what’s actionable” in a broader agenda that also targets historic inequity that dates back to Black veterans serving in World War II.

“There needs to be a critical mass in the Black veteran community to demand it,” said Brookshire, who co-founded the Black Veterans Project. “The seed has been planted and we’re going to begin to see the tree bear fruit.”

The Black Veterans Empowerment Council was formed in 2020, amid the national reckoning that followed the murder of George Floyd by police, as a roundtable of Black veterans groups meant to advise the House Veterans Affairs Committee. Council members said part of their work over the last two years has been acquiring 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, at 30.3%, when 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 a rate of 30.7%.

Linda Mann, co-founder of the African American Redress Network at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, led a group of students that did an additional analysis on the benefits data. According to their findings, disparities in how Black veterans are rated on the severity of their condition amounted to lower disability compensation and decreased eligibility for other VA benefits.

These findings build on historic racial inequities in veterans benefits that stretch back to integration of the armed services in the late 1940s. Black service members who fought in World War II were either denied or prevented 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 wealth, are still being felt today.

“What most people would usually say is we went through the civil rights movement and things are better,” Mann said, but that was not borne out by the Freedom of Information Act statistics the advocacy groups received.

“The continued inequity on the part of the military and VA tracked in not only the FOIA data that we looked at, but also in the 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 over its Freedom of Information Act requests for benefits data by race. They won the access. 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 veteran benefit access.

Dabney ultimately did blaze a better path for himself, going on to college and becoming a hospital chaplain in Chicago. But it took overcoming a descent into alcoholism, infidelity and self-neglect before he found his calling.

After his diagnosis for PTSD and depression, he was connected to mental health counseling services through the VA at a community-based outpatient center near Chicago. The assigned counselor, a white woman, frustrated Dabney because he felt she could not relate to the complexities of his identities as a war veteran and a Black man from rough beginnings in Memphis.

“I got to the point where I would just say ‘Yes. Yes, that’s it,’” Dabney recalled. “Instead of me advocating for myself, I began to mold what I said based on what I thought that they could understand. In doing so, I wasn’t able to really open up and present my full self to them.”

He was ready to give up, but what he really needed was a peer encouraging him to stick with it, he said.

Now, Dabney manages a peer apprentice 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 further help, to seek help from clinicians,” Dabney said.

Walidah Bennett, founder and director of a multi-faith veterans initiative at DePaul University in Chicago is working to provide Black churches and clergy with resources 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, she has established 15 community sites for veterans in crisis. Suicide rates among Black veterans have been on the rise, increasing from 11.8% to 14.5% between 2001 and 2019, though rates remain highest among white veterans, according to the VA’s 2021 annual report on veteran suicide prevention.

“Had we had the community spaces that we have today, it could have been very helpful to my son,” Bennett said.

(Copyright (c) 2022 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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