The history of this country’s treatment of its veterans has been dismal, starting with the very beginning of the country.
The Continental Congress of 1776 sought to encourage enlistments and curtail desertions with the nation’s first pension law. It granted half pay for life in cases of loss of limb or other serious disability. But they had no money or authority so they left it to the states with lackluster success. Only about 3,000 Revolutionary War veterans ever drew any pension, and it was limited to those who had been disabled and the payments were quite low.
A new principle for veterans benefits, providing pensions on the basis of need (indigent), was introduced in the 1818 Service Pension Law. The law provided that every person who had served in the War for Independence and was in need of assistance would receive a fixed pension for life. The rate was $20 a month for officers and $8 a month for enlisted men.
The problem was that the pensioner had to prove that he was indigent and many never received a penny. In 1858 Congress authorized half-pay pensions to veterans’ widows and to their orphan children until they reached the age of 16, generally paying $4.00 to $10.00 a month depending on rank of the veteran.
By 1868 New York Governor Reuben E. Fenton (“the soldier’s friend”) remarked that homeless veterans in New York State “numbered by the thousands.”
After the Civil War, veterans organized to seek increased benefits. The Grand Army of the Republic, consisting of Union veterans of the Civil War, was the largest veterans organization emerging from the war.
Until 1890, Civil War pensions were granted only to servicemen discharged because of illness or disability attributable to military service.
The Dependent Pension Act of 1890 substantially broadened the scope of eligibility, providing pensions to veterans incapable of manual labor. (Photo courtesy VA Dept.)
World War I
“The Veteran’s Bureau,” a columnist wrote in 1925, “has probably made wrecks of more men since the war than the war itself took in dead and maimed.”
After Dec. 24, 1919, all claims and payments arising from disability or death from World War I were regarded as compensation rather than pension. This was reversed in March 1933, when all payments to veterans were again regarded as pensions. It was not until World War II that the distinction between compensation and pension again was used.
The first director of the Veteran’s Bureau was relieved as director within two years and was later sentenced to prison and fined on charges of conspiracy to defraud the government on hospital contracts.
After returning from the Great War, many veterans faced destitution and did all they could to survive. In 1924 Congress passed the World War Adjustment Compensation Act, giving one dollar a day for service and 25 cents more for service overseas. There was a catch: If it was more than $50.00 it was issued in certificate form not payable for 20 years and not over $1500.00.
The veteran’s called these “bonus” certificates and marched on Washington, (see last 2 pictures above), some 15,000 by some estimates. They demanded immediate payments. They camped wherever they could. Some slept in abandoned buildings or erected tents. But many lived in makeshift shacks along the mudflats of the Anacostia River. With no sanitation facilities, living conditions quickly deteriorated in the “shanty town.
The bonus marches revealed serious shortcomings in how America cared for her defenders as they transitioned from military to civilian life. As a result, Congress passed the GI Bill of Rights. (Photo Courtesy VA Dept)
In 1933 Congress enacted the Economy Act which repealed all laws giving benefits for veterans and gave the authority to Roosevelt who radically created new acts that radically reduced veteran’s benefits.
World War II
In 1946, the VA had beds for about 82,000 patients but the VA rolls swelled to 15 million in just a few months and the hospitals were virtually all swamped. There were 26,000 non service related cases also on the waiting list. The VA was building new hospitals but had money for only 12,000 more beds. They came too few too late.
Health problems associated with atomic radiation also have received belated attention. The Radiation-Exposed Veterans Compensation Act of 1988 authorized disability compensation for veterans suffering from a number of diseases associated with radiation, 42 years after the exposure!
This specifically included veterans claiming exposure to atomic radiation during the detonation of nuclear test devices or during the U.S. occupation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki between September 11, 1945, and July 1, 1946
The Veterans’ Readjustment Assistance Act of 1952, called the Korean GI Bill, provided unemployment insurance, job placement, home loans and mustering-out benefits similar to those offered World War II veterans. The Korean GI Bill made several changes, however, in education benefits, reducing financial benefits generally and imposing new restrictions.
The effect of the changes was that the benefit no longer completely covered the cost of the veteran’s education.
A major difference of Vietnam-era veterans from those of earlier wars was the larger percentage of disabled. Advances in airlift and medical treatment saved the lives of many who would have died in earlier wars. There were issues of Agent Orange which took many years to address. At first, the only allowable claims related to Agent Orange were for a skin rash, chloracne. The VA waited until 1991 to recognize for claim purposes two other ailments, soft-tissue sarcoma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. (Photo Courtesy erokCom (Creative Commons License)
Vientnam veterans make up the preponderance of homeless veterans. 42% of the homeless veterans served in Vietnam. Many more served during the conflict but in non combat areas.
Many of these suffer from PTSD, alcohol and drug related illnesses that have not been properly addressed by the VA. The VA still claims that PTSD has no relationship to military service.
Gulf War veterans are among the new faces of homeless veterans.
Afganistan and Iraq
News Headline: New York– Americans were dismayed to learn that soldiers wounded in Afghanistan and Iraq — “fallen heroes” were being warehoused in Building 18, a rat-and roach infested satellite of the Armu’s Walter Reed Medical Center.
In addition, injured veterans are going bankrupt and losing their homes because the Veterans Administration (V.A.) holds up their benefit checks for years on end.
The men and women who fight for our country deserve better.
Is this any way to “support our troops?”
Update March 2010:
VA secretary announces plans for more housing vouchers at Homeless Veterans Summit
Updated: Monday, January 4th, 2010 | By Robert Farley
On July 30, 2009, U.S. Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., introduced the “Zero Tolerance for Veterans Homelessness Act of 2009.” The bill would authorize a major increase in the number of vouchers available annually for homeless veterans through the VA Supported Housing Program. Specifically, the bill would increase the number of vouchers available to 30,000 in 2010, and then 10,000 more a year until 2014, when 60,000 vouchers would be available. The bill now sits in the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee.
On Nov. 3, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki convened the first-ever Homeless Veteran Summit in Washington, during which he unveiled an ambitious plan to establish new programs and enhance existing ones with the goal of ending homelessness among veterans over the next five years.
Note: Some of the history information and early pictures came from the VA History website, later pictures came from recent posts and news articles, with attribution to sources. Link to Creative Commons License information.