Minority veterans committee visits Winston-Salem


It started with a bunion – a common, painful inflammation of the big toe that flared near the end of Sandra Garnett’s 10-year hitch in the US Army.

She reported to the medical center for routine surgery. The doctors bungled it, Garnett said. Fifteen years and seven surgeries later, that simple bunion had metastasized into a medical problem complex enough to require several surgically implanted pins and a daily regimen of pain medication.

Upon her discharge in 1992, the Veteran’s Administration awarded her a 10-percent disability rating. In 2004, they upped it to 40 percent, Garnett said.

Her feet trouble her to this day, but that wasn’t what brought Garnett, an African-American woman, to a town hall meeting hosted by the Advisory Committee on Minority Veterans in downtown Winston-Salem. She also suffers headaches – blinding migraines that keep her from her job at the IRS. The drugs Garnett gets from the VA hospital don’t help much, she said, and anything stronger would interact with the medication she takes for her feet.

“It’s just frustrating to have a decent job and not be able to function,” Garnett said. “I have exhausted all of my sick days already, but the [Veterans Benefits Administration] regional office said they are not going to rate me for my migraines.”

On April 2, directors of the Veterans Benefits Administration regional office met with the Advisory Committee on Minority Veterans, an advocacy group that reports directly to Veterans Affairs Secretary James Peake.

The members of the committee include an impressive collection of firsts: first Asian-American Army commander, first black female brigadier general in the Army National Guard and first black female prisoner of war. They represent Pacific Islanders, Asian Americans, African Americans, Hispanic and Native Americans who’ve served in the US Armed Forces. And all of them except for one are military veterans.

On March 31, the committee met with more than 100 veterans in Fayetteville – the first part of their three-day site visit in North Carolina. Only a half dozen veterans, including Garnett, turned out for the second meeting in Winston-Salem two days later.

Most of them came with concerns about their cases. Garnett said her rating of 40 percent wasn’t high enough and another man complained that he was not compensated at all for his disability.

The Winston-Salem office handled almost 70,000 benefit claims last year and serves some 131,064 veterans across the state. Many of those veterans are minorities, although exact numbers are hard to pin down because questions about ethnic background are optional.

“The biggest challenge for minority veterans is lack of awareness,” said Lucretia McClenney, director of the Center for Minority Veterans, the federal office affiliated with the committee. “We try to promote education, just the awareness of benefits, and cultural competency in regional offices.”

There are other problems. Homelessness disproportionately affects minority veterans, particularly African Americans, who account for half of all homeless veterans, McClenney said. Diseases like hypertension and diabetes take an overwhelming toll on minorities.

The Winston-Salem regional office employs a part-time minority affairs coordinator. Of the 300 VA minority affairs coordinators, only six work full time, McClenney said.

“What we do is we ask the director, does he feel that he is penetrating the minority veteran community,” McClenney said. “And if he does not, then we ask that he consider making that position a full-time position.”

There are a lot of things to consider these days at the Winston-Salem regional office. Between 2000 and 2007, the number of claims filed at the office nearly doubled from 37,800 to 68,600 as veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq began coming home. The office added 214 new employees to the original staff of 297.

“We have gown more than any other station in the country,” said Bob Ketels, assistant director of the Winston-Salem regional office. “North Carolina is one of the most active vets states in the country. The pace here is relentless.”

A year and a half ago, the office hired Sharon Butler-Norwood as its minority outreach coordinator. They have another staff member who does outreach among homeless veterans.

“The minority veterans outreach program here is in its infancy,” Butler-Norwood said. “It was an inactive program at one time, but it has been active for about a year and a half.”

Her outreach includes educating minority veterans and their families on the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and working with local adult education and mental health providers to spread information about the types of benefits for which veterans are eligible.

“Yes there is a gap in information,” Butler-Norwood said. “And I am trying to bridge that gap. One of the biggest barriers we have is that we’re dealing with a lot of mental health issues.”

The Advisory Committee on Minority Veterans meets twice a year, once in Washington, DC and once at a site with a high concentration of minority veterans. The members submit an annual report to the Secretary Peake and work with the Center for Minority Veterans to provide training for regional offices.

During the site visit, the committee scolded the Winston-Salem regional office for its insufficient outreach to Native American and Hispanic communities. The office has few Native American employees, despite the high number of military veterans who belong to the Lumbee and Cherokee tribes. Hispanics are also underrepresented, despite their growing presence in North Carolina.

“We are not trying to be adversarial,” McClenney said. “We are the veterans’ advocate and we are here to see how the VA is faring in offering them services. It’s not one-size-fits-all. It’s about getting to know the veteran.”

The chair of the committee, James Mukoyama Jr., said the problems they encountered in North Carolina exist everywhere they’ve visited.

“What happens is, when you’re on active duty and you come off active duty,” Mukoyama said, “even though they have briefing sessions and tell you your benefits, often times veterans are just more interested in just getting home. I know, it happened to me.”

Some veterans don’t know that the federal government will guarantee a home loan or reimburse for an injury sustained during service, he said.

“But it is our duty and our responsibility to continue to try to get the information out to them,” Mukoyama said.

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