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VA Commitment to Minority Vets:
Why Not Us?

Danny Ingram
President, American
Veterans For Equal Rights

The United States Department of Veterans Affairs, the “VA”, maintains a Center for Minority Veterans (CMV), which employs Minority Veterans Program Coordinators (MVPC) and Minority Veterans Liaisons at both the national and local level to coordinate outreach for designated veteran minority groups. According to the CMV’s website, their “vision” states “dignity and an acceptable quality of life are the products we seek to deliver to ALL [their emphasis] veterans no matter what their circumstance.” In addition, the CMV’s ”outreach” section includes “CMV is charged with identifying barriers to service and health care access, as well as increasing local awareness of minority veteran related issues by developing strategies for improving minority participation in existing VA benefit programs,” and “supporting and initiating activities that educate and sensitize internal staff to the unique needs of minority veterans.”

According to the CMV’s site, Public Law 103-446, sec 510, November 2, 1994, created an Advisory Committee on Minority Veterans which would consist of, among others, “representatives of veterans who are minority group members.” The committee reports directly to the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, and the law mandates that the Secretary will prepare an annual report to Congress that will include “an assessment of the needs of veterans who are minority group members with respect to compensation, health care, rehabilitation, outreach, and other benefits and programs administered by the Department.” Currently the term “minority group member” is specifically defined as “Asian Americans, Black, Hispanic, Native Americans (including American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian) or Pacific-Islander American.” The Center’s Vision Statement says the CMV will “ensure all veterans receive equal service regardless of race, origin, religion, or gender”, even though these characteristics are clearly not covered in the “minority group member” classification. In a section entitled “Who We Serve”, the CMV further states “first and foremost our staff is dedicated to serving all veterans regardless of race or ethnicity.” Again, a statement well beyond the designated “minority group member” classification.

Why would the VA create and maintain the Center for Minority Veterans? Without saying as much, clearly there have been problems with “minority” veterans receiving benefits from the VA. These problems could include lack of access to information, regional isolation, or prejudice against these groups by employees of the VA. The CMV has also been successful in identifying opportunities for non-traditional approaches to minority veteran healthcare, such as the use of Native American “mind-body-spirit” healing practices (meditation, fire ceremonies, drumming sessions and sweat-lodge purification ceremonies), building relationships with Native Tribal Health Organizations, identifying minority “at-risk” groups for drug and alcohol abuse, ensuring that VA staff reflect the diversity of the populations they serve, mandating local town hall meetings to listen to the needs of minority veterans, and the development of diversity and inclusion strategic plans at the highest levels of the VA. Reading between the lines, there are a host of reasons why the CMV was created to ensure that minority veterans receive full access, sensitivity, respect, and outreach. The Center’s website states “we acknowledge the diversity of our veterans and profoundly value the strength and unique character this diversity has contributed to our great Nation.” Why then, a lack of the obvious? Why does the CMV not have an official Minority Veterans Liaison for the group that has been and continues to be the most disenfranchised and ostracized group in the history of the US military: LGBT veterans?

In June, 2009, out of the blue, I received an invitation as AVER Regional VP to attend the 10th biennial Minority Veterans Program Coordinators conference in Atlanta. I was invited to attend the conference by Dwayne E. Campbell, at the time the Veterans Outreach Coordinator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and now the CMV’s Veteran Liaison for Hispanic American veterans. I still don’t know how Mr. Campbell knew about AVER, but his invitation was an important recognition that the VA was preparing to reach out to LGBT veterans before the DADT ban was repealed. The conference included MVPCs from all over the nation, as well as representatives from numerous Veterans Service Organizations. I attended a group discussion that included national staff from the CMV. When I introduced myself and explained AVER’s mission I received a large applause from the attendees. In attendance was Lucretia McClenney, then Director of the CMV. I asked her how a minority group became one of the official groups recognized by the CMV. The Director responded that “it would take an act of Congress.” Literally.

Two years ago I wrote an article following my attendance at a meeting of the Pentagon’s DADT Repeal Implementation Team concerning the DOD’s strategy not to include LGB service members as a “protected class” in the Military Equal Opportunity (MEO) Program. For a number of reasons the DOD felt that gay, lesbian, and bisexual service members did not need the protection of the MEO, which “seeks to eliminate unlawful discrimination and sexual harassment against military members, family members, and retirees based on race, color, sex, national origin, or religion.” While this decision by the DOD has its own dire consequences on the ability of active duty LGB service members to seek protection against discrimination, it also affects the VA. At the Repeal meeting a representative of the VA clearly stated that the VA "would be following the DOD's lead" on this issue. In other words, no “minority” designation for LGB veterans by the VA. And certainly not for Transgender service members, who still cannot serve openly in the US military. The Coast Guard, which is under the Department of Homeland Security and not the DOD, does include LGB service members as a designated class in its non-discrimination and minority protection policies.

The VA is working to develop outreach to LGBT vets.  Patient Care Services, which oversees clinical programs that support and improve Veterans' health care, now includes two part-time Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) Program Coordinators.  These LGBT Program Coordinators lead clinical training efforts on LGBT health care, respond to queries from the field of VA providers on LGBT clinical issues, and advise Patient Care Services on policies and procedures relevant to VHA in providing high, quality and culturally-competent clinical care to LGBT Veterans.  The LGBT Program Coordinators also work with other VA Offices such as Health Equity and the Employee Education System. Patient Care Services is not associated with the Center for Minority Veterans, and does not perform outreach to LGBT prior service members within the veteran community outside the VA.  The Atlanta VA Medical Center has designated two individuals as LGBT/A [Allies] Special Emphasis Program Co-Managers, but neither of these individuals is devoted full time to the support of LGBT vets. 

Is there a need within the VA to designate direct support services to LGBT veterans? Absolutely. Many veterans who were discharged prior to DADT for any reason related to “homosexuality” were usually given a Less Than Honorable (LTH) discharge. Most discharges under DADT were Honorable, but in some cases if the discharge involved “conduct” the service member may have received a Less Than Honorable discharge. These discharges prevent veterans from accessing VA healthcare services. LTH discharges involving LGBT service members can now be upgraded to allow access to the VA, but this process can be lengthy and expensive. The Discharge Review Boards that are responsible for this action are part of the DOD, and not the VA, but the VA could certainly be active in helping vets get their discharges upgraded and could begin offering services to vets while the upgrade is in process.

Other services that the VA could target to LGBT veterans include HIV prevention, hormone and counseling therapy, and treatment for the highly documented “double PTSD” experienced by many LGBT vets as a result of the tremendous stress of maintaining a false identity while serving in the military. Further town hall sessions and research could define further issues specific to LGBT prior service members that the VA could begin to address in a more dedicated effort.

In short, there is a strong need and clear precedent for adding an LGBT outreach to the VA’s CMV program. A Veterans Service Organization such as AVER can go a long way in helping LGBT veterans secure services from the VA, especially if we are able to tap into grant funds that can allow us the resources to assist our vets in overcoming the obstacles that prevent us from getting the full healthcare services we have earned. AVER is currently in the early process to secure such funding, and assistance in writing grant proposals will be extremely useful to helping us help our veterans fully access the VA. But we can’t go it alone. AVER calls upon Congress to designate LGBT veterans as a recognized minority group so that the CMV can help our vets overcome the long-standing barriers that prevent prior service members from leading full, healthy lives by accessing the VA care we deserve.

  2013 Gay Military Signal