The United States has a long history of assisting its veterans and has one of, if not the, most extensive military veterans benefits systems of any nation in the world. The current VA can trace its roots back to 1636, when the Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony were at war with the Pequot Indians. The Pilgrims enacted a law that committed them to support soldiers disabled in defending the colony.
During the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress of 1776 encouraged enlistments by authorizing pensions for soldiers who were disabled. Later, individual states and even communities provided medical and hospital care to veterans. In 1811, the first domiciliary and medical facility for veterans was authorized by the federal government. In the later 1800s, federal veterans assistance was expanded to include benefits and pensions not only for veterans, but also for their widows and dependents.
In 1862, the federal government established a system for settling veterans' claims for benefits arising from military service. Following the Civil War, a number of state veterans homes were also established. These facilities provided incidental medical and hospital treatment for all injuries and diseases, whether or not related to service. These homes cared for indigent and disabled veterans of the Civil War, Indian Wars, Spanish-American War, and Mexican Border period, as well as other discharged veterans.
Congress established a new system of veterans benefits when the United States entered World War I in 1917. Programs were created for compensation, insurance, and vocational rehabilitation for the disabled. Following the war, veterans benefits ended up being administered by three different federal agencies: the Veterans Bureau, the Bureau of Pensions, and the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers. This inefficient and confusing arrangement eventually proved too burdensome to effectively administer.
So, in 1930 Congress established the Veterans Administration to provide services to the veterans of World War I and earlier wars whose pension programs had been administered by sub-agencies in the War Department. The three existing agencies became bureaus within the Veterans Administration. Brigadier General Frank T. Hines, who had directed the Veterans Bureau for seven years, was named as the first Administrator of Veterans Affairs, a job he held until 1945.
The Veterans Administration or "VA" as it was and still is known, remained essentially unchanged in form or function. In 1989, however, Congress passed enabling legislation that transformed the Veterans Administration into the Department of Veterans Affairs and elevated the Secretary of Veterans Affairs (formerly the "Administrator") to a cabinet level officer. The Department or "DVA" as it is sometimes referred to is responsible for almost all federal programs that provide benefits to military veterans.
VA is organized into three "Administrations:" Veterans Benefits Administration ("VBA"), Veterans Health Administration ("VHA"), and National Cemetery Administration ("NCA"). These administrations, in turn, manage the large number of veterans programs funded by Congress each year.
VBA is responsible for providing benefits to veterans and their eligible family members. This includes administering VA's programs that provide financial and other forms of assistance to veterans, their dependents, and survivors. Major benefits include veteran's compensation, veteran's pension, survivor's benefits, rehabilitation and employment assistance, education assistance, home loan guaranties, and life insurance.
VHA is the nation's largest integrated health care system. VHA employs more than 240,000 staff at over 1,400 sites, including hospitals, clinics, nursing homes, domiciliaries, and Readjustment Counseling Centers (Vet Centers). In addition, VHA is the nation's largest provider of graduate medical education and a major contributor to medical research.
The NCA mission is to honor veterans with final resting places in national shrines and with lasting tributes that commemorate their service to our nation. NCA also maintains the VA national cemeteries and administers grants for establishing or expanding state veterans cemeteries.
All of these services and staff make VA the second largest Cabinet-level department in the U.S. government. In recent years the VA budget has well exceeded $100 billion dollars and it employs over 250,000 employees at thousands of VA facilities across the country and in U.S. territories. The Department administers hundreds of programs for veterans, spouses, and dependents in every state and territory.
A description of every VA program is well beyond the scope of this KNOWLEDGE BOOK. A few of the major programs administered by VA with the largest numbers of beneficiaries are described below.
The compensation program provides monthly payments to veterans in recognition of the effects of disabilities, diseases, or injuries incurred or aggravated during active military service. The compensation program also provides monthly payments, as specified by law, to surviving spouses, dependent children and dependent parents in recognition of the economic loss caused by the veteran's death during active military service or, subsequent to discharge from military service, as a result of a service-connected disability.
The purpose of the pension program is to provide monthly payments, as specified by law, to needy wartime veterans who are permanently and totally disabled as a result of disability not related to military service. The pension program also provides monthly payments, as specified by law, to needy surviving spouses and dependent children of deceased wartime veterans.
In 1944, Congress passed legislation providing college educational assistance payments for returning World War II veterans known as the "GI Bill." Congress has re-authorized educational benefits to cover Korean, Vietnam, Iraqi, Afghanistan, and peacetime-era veterans. VA estimates that more than 21,300,000 veterans and eligible dependents have received approximately $72.8 billion in educational benefits through these programs since 1944. It is estimated that 7,800,000 World War II veterans, 2,400,000 Korean War veterans, 8,200,000 Viet Nam and peacetime veterans, and 730,000 eligible dependents have received educational benefits from these programs.
VA operates over 150 Veterans Affairs Medical Centers ("VAMC"). Each state, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico has at least one VAMC within its borders. VA's extensive medical programs include more than 1,300 ambulatory care and community-based outpatient clinics, more than 130 nursing homes, 43 domiciliaries, 206 Veterans centers, and 88 comprehensive home-care programs. The VA medical system is also designed to support the Defense Department during national emergencies and serve as a federal support organization during major disasters.
VA operates a Readjustment Counseling Service for returning combat veterans. The service provides psychological readjustment counseling and social services to veterans and their families through over 200 community "Vet Centers" located across the country. Vet Centers are intended to aid combat veteran and non-combat veterans who served in time of war or national emergency. Vet Centers also counsel service members who were victims of sexual assault or sexual harassment on active duty. VA reports that Vet Centers have provided assistance to more than 2,000,000 veterans since 1979 and serve over 130,000 veterans annually.
In addition to establishing VA as a full federal Department, in 1989 Congress also opened VA benefits decisions to judicial review for the first time. Until that time, VA decisions were only appealable from the regional office to the Board of Veterans' Appeals. A decision of the Board was final and no court could review it. The reason for this was the characterization (by the government) of the VA benefit system as a "non-adversarial," where VA was supposed to be a "friend of the veteran" who was legally bound to assist the veteran in developing the veteran's claim.
Public dissatisfaction with VA's performance, perceived arbitrary and unexplained decision-making, and lack of responsiveness finally persuaded Congress to create a new court dedicated to reviewing final decisions on veterans claims. Congress also established a path to the "regular" federal courts. What is now known as the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims began hearing cases in 1989. At the same time, veterans were also first permitted to hire paid attorneys to assist them in appealing denied claims.