2020 put an exclamation point on the call for racial equity in the United States, magnifying the challenges we have faced for generations, but adding a sense of urgency not felt since the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s. The police killing of George Floyd sparked this urgency, much as the gruesome murder of Emmett Till did in 1955, but us veterans know that a single battle rarely ever tells the full story of the larger war being fought.
Black people have shouldered the worst of the pandemic in America. Our community has had more deaths, more job loss and pay cuts, and continues to have less access to resources. Layer these inequities over those suffered by another vulnerable group, our veterans, and the picture becomes starker yet.
The numbers tell a troubling story: Black service members account for 16% of coronavirus cases across the Department of Veterans Affairs system and 22% of deaths, despite making up only 12% of the overall veteran population in the United States.
Research shows that Black veterans also face racial biases in mental health care settings,which is a concern of potentially devastating proportions when we consider the up to 20% increase in suicide among the military last year. The higher likelihood of contracting the virus, coupled with historically prevalent disparities in the health care that Black veterans receive and the country’s inability to provide adequate mental health services, promises to render the long-term effects catastrophic.
Black veterans suffering ramifications of pandemic
From an economic standpoint as well, Black veterans are disproportionately feeling the ramifications of COVID-19. The veteran unemployment rate nationwide rose exponentially — from 3.1% in 2019 to 11.7% in 2020. However, Black veterans saw an even higher rate of unemployment than their white counterparts consistently throughout last year.
Minority veterans also reported a higher level of need across categories, including financial assistance, housing, food and child care.These conditions, which don’t exist in a vacuum, exacerbate the already high rates of racial discrimination Black people were experiencing in the job and housing markets.
Yet another data set from the Pentagon and the VA reveals that Black service members were less likely to become officers. This holds true despite Black Americans enlisting at a higher rate than other groups.Representation matters. It decides, sometimes unconsciously, what issues get addressed and which ones fall through the cracks, making it difficult to tackle the challenges Black service members and veterans face when there aren’t enough leaders to advocate for them.
The numbers simply can’t relate the human costs to each of the families who live these realities everyday. As a Black man, I am angry but not surprised at what the data tells me: that my community is falling further and further behind. But as a Black veteran, I am heartbroken by the failed promise of our nation to honor our troops of all colors and backgrounds with the services we have earned. As the pandemic exacerbated stress on a community already burdened by historical inequity, we must prioritize support for those who are suffering the most.
The Department of Defense is already in the process of vaccinating every active-duty service member who wants the vaccine. The VA’s announcement that veterans of color will be among those prioritized during vaccine distribution due to the disproportionate risk they face is a crucial first step in addressing the larger health care inequity issue, and should be one that catalyzes long-term changes to our post-COVID approach to veteran care.
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In addition to this, veteran mental health care access must become a VA priority under the Biden administration. Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) has long advocated for such access, including for the Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Care Improvement Act, the most comprehensive veteran suicide bill passed to date.
The need to solve the issues that Black servicemen face
The bipartisan Veterans Economic Recovery Act aims to address the employment and retraining of veterans during the pandemic. It directs the VA to implement a program providing up to 12 months of nontransferable retraining assistance to 35,000 eligible veterans for the pursuit of a specified program of education.
While it is a good start, without addressing the inequities that prevent Black veterans from accessing these programs, the bill will not be successful in helping those most affected by the issue at hand.
While IAVA will continue to advocate for veterans on health care and economic opportunity, the truly transformative changes that Black veterans need will not be possible without adequate representation throughout all levels of VA leadership. The Biden administration prioritizes diversity throughout the Cabinet, and I hope that the incoming team under VA Secretary Denis McDonough will represent the veterans it serves. We are not a monolith; our VA leaders should reflect this reality.
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As we celebrate Black History Month, it is crucial we recognize the unique issues our Black service members face so the institutions they rely on can meet them with the support they have earned. The collective setbacks we continue to face as a nation can only be turned into an opportunity for advancing social equity if we press forward with thoughtful and progressive reforms that meet the needs of all. Our country has a long path to recovery ahead, but recovery isn’t complete until it is inclusive and equitable. When we ensure that our most vulnerable veterans are supported, we are strengthening our entire system and country.
Jeremy Butler is the CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.