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For Service to Your CountryThe Essential Guide to Getting the Veterans' Benefits You've Earned
By PETER S. GAYTAN MARIAN EDELMAN BORDEN
CITADEL PRESSCopyright © 2008 Peter S. Gaytan and Marian Edelman Borden
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe VA and the Veteran
The willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war, no matter how justified, shall be directly proportional to how they perceive the veterans of earlier wars were treated and appreciated by their nation. —George Washington
George Washington, our country's first President and a soldier himself, understood the critical role the treatment of veterans would play in the future defense of our nation. In fact, the Continental Congress of 1776 encouraged enlistment in the Revolutionary War by promising lifetime care for any soldier wounded or disabled.
An integral part of the bargain we make with our servicemen and -women is that when they have completed their service, either at the end of their tours of duty or because of illness or injury, they can count on America to honor its pledge to care for them, help to educate them, assist them in owning homes, and ultimately honor them in death. Treating veterans with respect, caring—if necessary for life—for our nation's wounded comrades-in-arms, providing incentives that enrich the post-military years of those who have served, is both an ethical and practical decision.
The concept that a nation owed something to the veterans of its armed forces is much older than our country. The Roman Empire gave land to its career soldiers who retired from service. Later there was precedent in English law that a nation had a responsibility to its soldiers. Our own obligation to veterans is evident even with the first Pilgrims. Those early colonists passed a law in 1636 that declared: "If any man shall be sent forth as a soldier and shall return maimed, he shall be maintained competently by the colony during his life."
The Foundation of American Veterans Benefits Is Set
Pensions for disabled veterans and their dependents was one of the laws passed by the first U.S. Congress in 1789. Steadily through the nineteenth century, there was a growing recognition that the Federal government must provide health care and pensions for veterans injured and disabled while in service. In 1811, the Federal government authorized the first domiciliary (residence) and medical facility for veterans. By 1818, the Secretary of War assumed the responsibility of administering veterans programs. The administration of this care shifted among Federal departments over the next century. At one point, the Bureau of Pensions was responsible; later, administration of these benefits was shifted to the Department of the Interior, with other agencies providing services to veterans. First the Marine Hospitals in 1798, and then the Public Health Service supplied medical examinations to veterans. The National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers was founded in 1866.
The years following the Civil War were a critical period for the movement to provide care for veterans grievously wounded and dislocated during the conflict. Many states established veterans' homes, and during those years, medical care and hospital treatment were provided to veterans whether or not the injuries or disease were service based.
World War I Marks a New Era for Vets
But it is World War I, and the veterans who emerged from that global struggle, that marks the beginning of the modern veterans movement. What is evident over the past century is that it is always a battle of cost versus need. Moreover, it has been a constant clash of veterans versus bureaucracy. Ex-servicemen and -women have always needed to navigate through a confusing maze of rules, regulations, and paperwork. The result? Too often the veteran has had to fight two battles: first for his nation and then for his benefits.
In 1917, at the start of America's entry into the war, Congress authorized new benefits for veterans including disability compensation, life insurance for servicemen and veterans, and vocational rehabilitation for the disabled.
The Federal Board of Vocational Education (part of the Treasury Department) administered the vocational rehab provided for disabled veterans. Of interest is that the disability for which the veteran sought treatment could be one incurred while in service, or existed previously but was increased or aggravated by service. The Bureau of War Risk Insurance handled other veteran affairs.
During the 1920s, veterans' benefits were administered by three different Federal agencies: the Veterans Bureau, the Bureau of Pensions of the Interior Department, and the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers. In 1930, Congress authorized President Herbert Hoover to "consolidate and coordinate Government activities affecting war veterans." The Veterans Administration was established in answer to this law and the three component agencies became bureaus under the VA (note at that time it's the Veterans Administration, it's not until 1989 that it becomes the Department of Veterans Affairs). While the Federal government had provided benefits for veterans throughout its history, 1930 is considered the founding date of the VA and the modern veteran era.
The Bonus Army Marches on Washington
This interwar period is critical because the political power of veterans as a group becomes clear with the "Bonus Army" of 1932. Let's put it in context. Veterans were seeking immediate payment of the cash "bonus" that had been promised to them in 1924 by the Adjusted Service Certificate Law. That bonus was originally to be paid in 1945. But it's the height of the Great Depression, unemployment is rampant, and veterans insist they need the bonus immediately in order to survive and provide for their families. The result? A march on Washington by World War I veterans, a political move that would be repeated over the years by veterans and other groups seeking the attention of Congress and the public at large.
The Bonus Army (also known as the Bonus March or Bonus Expeditionary Force) was a group of 31,000 World War I veterans (with their families and other affiliated groups). They marched on Washington, D.C., in June 1932 and set up a camp in Anacostia, across the river from the Federal city. The Bonus Army demanded passage of the Patman Bonus Bill, which would move forward the date the bonus would be paid. President Hoover opposed the bill, and although it passed in the House of Representatives, it was blocked by the Senate.
The standoff between veterans and the very government they had served finally ended tragically in late July when Federal troops cleared the camps. Hundreds of veterans were injured, several were killed. But that image of America's own veterans, servicemen who had survived the horrors of World War I and now beset by American troops, was incredibly powerful. It set the stage for the Veterans Administration, but also forced elected officials to recognize the political power of veterans. Herbert Hoover's open opposition to the Bonus Bill and the rout of American veterans by U.S. troops helped defeat the Republican incumbent in November 1932.
While Franklin D. Roosevelt didn't want to pay the bonus early either, historians point out that he was more adept at skillfully handling the continuing veterans issue. When there was another march on Washington by veterans in 1933, Eleanor Roosevelt met with the group. A work program designed to give veterans jobs, building the Overseas Highway in Florida, was initially welcomed, but the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 killed 259 veterans working on the highway. Public sentiment had shifted. The Federal government was seen as taking advantage of veterans, and Congress voted to enact the bonus in 1936. Roosevelt vetoed the bill, but it was an election year and Congress overrode the veto and prevailed.
The political power of veterans was established.
The GI Bill Transforms America
The VA grew exponentially at the end of World War II with the return of 16 million veterans. To offer new opportunities to these returning soldiers, the Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944, better known as the GI Bill, was signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt just two weeks after D-day. It was, according to historian Stephen Ambrose, "the best piece of legislation ever passed by the U.S. Congress, and it made modern America." This historic piece of legislation was the result of the hard work of the American Legion. During organizational meetings held at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C., in 1943, past National Commander Harry W. Colmery of Topeka, Kansas, drafted—in longhand on hotel stationery—what would become the GI Bill. Ironically, this bill passed by a slim margin and didn't even get much attention at that time. Its long-term impact on American society was yet to be understood.
Besides providing health care for returning veterans, there were two landmark features of the GI Bill that transformed this nation, socially and economically. According to the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, the education component of the GI Bill meant that "a whole generation of blue collar workers were enabled to go to college, become doctors, lawyers, and engineers, and that their children would grow up in a middle class family.... In 1940, the average GI was 26 years old and had an average of one year of high school as his only education, and now, suddenly, the college doors were open." In its first year, the VA processed more than 83,000 applications for educational benefits.
The historian Michael Beschloss believes that the GI Bill of 1944 "linked the idea of service to education. You serve the country; the government pays you back by allowing you educational opportunities you otherwise wouldn't have had, and that in turn helps to improve this society."
The low-cost VA housing loans created by the GI Bill transformed America from a nation of renters to a country of homeowners. The net effect of the bill was the creation of suburbs as the population moved out of the rental apartments in the cities and into the new communities being developed with affordable housing. There were 13 million homes built in the 1950s, 11 million of which were built with VA loans. These new communities forced the creation of a new interstate highway system, which helped fuel the decay of many inner cities.
By 1947, World War II veterans and their families made up one-fourth of the U.S. population.
Health Care for Veterans Is Guaranteed
The history of VA medical care seems to repeat itself through the years. The news stories of 1933 seem sadly familiar to our current veterans. To cut government costs in 1933, the VA reviewed more than a million cases to insure "veterans' relief" payments were justified. VA hospital and domiciliary workloads dropped 23 and 40 percent respectively because new laws limited eligibility for VA medical care.
Providing medical care for our nation's ex–servicemembers is undoubtedly expensive, but it is necessary and honorable. In 1930, the Veterans Administration operated 48 hospitals and 54 regional offices. The demand for medical care by returning World War II veterans meant that by 1948, the VA operated 125 hospitals with 102,200 beds. But demand then, as today, outpaced availability of services. At the end of 1948, 20, 700 veterans deemed eligible for VA medical care awaited hospital admission.
Today, medical care for veterans is still rationed. Although there are 153 VA medical centers in the VA system, and the VHA treats more than 5 million patients each year, the average wait time for treatment at a VA medical center can be several months. (Entering the system is different from waiting to be seen. Enrolling is not delayed. A veteran enrolls without delay but, once in the system, the wait time for an appointment can be up to a year at some facilities.)
For two years following separation from active duty, if you are a veteran who served in combat locations during active military service (after November 11, 1998), you are eligible for free health care service for conditions potentially related to combat service. Legislation is currently before Congress that seeks to extend that period to five years following separation from active duty. At the end of that time, however, you will be assigned to a priority group. Depending on your disability rating and service-connected eligibility, you may no longer be able to access the VA health care system.
VA has experienced unprecedented growth in the medical system workload since the beginning of the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT). According to VA, the number of patients treated at VA medical centers increased by 25 percent from 4.1 million in 2001 to more than 5.5 million in 2008.
Most veterans must enroll with VA in order to receive VA health care benefits. As of August 2009, 7.8 million veterans were enrolled in the VA health care system. Once enrolled with VA, veterans are placed in priority groups based on service connection, extent of injury or illness, and income level. Depending on the individual situation, the veteran could possibly be shut out of the VA health care system regardless of his service in the military.
Veterans who do not have to enroll include those with a service-connected disability of 50 percent or more, veterans who were discharged from the military within one year but have not yet been rated for a VA disability benefit, and veterans seeking care for only a service-connected disability.
Korean War Veterans Win Benefits
In anticipation of the needs of returning servicemembers, Congress crafted legislation that would help in the transition from military to civilian life. Korean War veterans secured World War II–era GI Bill–like benefits with the passage of the Veterans' Readjustment Act of 1952 or the Korean Conflict GI Bill. This new GI Bill provided unemployment insurance, job placement assistance, and transition benefits similar, but not equal, to those provided to World War II veterans. The Korean Conflict GI Bill provided only 36 months of education benefits compared to the 48 months provided to World War II veterans under the original GI Bill. Also, instead of making tuition payments to the colleges, Korean War veterans received a subsistence check that was intended to pay for their college tuition.
In December 1950 Congress passed the Vocational Rehabilitation Act of 1950 to help Korean War veterans find employment after losing their pre-war jobs due to disabilities caused by war. According to VA, some 2.4 million Korean War–era veterans received education and training under the Korean Conflict GI Bill.
Vietnam War Veterans Push for Change
Unlike World War II veterans, the servicemembers who returned home after tours of duty in Vietnam were not met with parades and welcoming arms. The nation was divided over the war and veterans bore the brunt of the anger. There was a lack of public and institutional support for Vietnam-era veterans. The returning combatants also faced benefits that, in comparison, were far smaller than those provided to World War II veterans. Transitional benefits in areas such as education, home loan, and job assistance did not meet the actual needs of this new era of veteran.
Society had changed dramatically since the return of the World War II veteran, but the benefits of the Vietnam-era veteran did not reflect societal changes. Although benefits were provided to Vietnam veterans, they fell short of the actual needs of the transitioning veteran. The Vietnam Era Veterans' Readjustment Assistance Act of 1974 finally provided those veterans with the benefits they had earned.
Vietnam-era veterans, feeling distant from the government and society, shunned VA hospitals. In 1979, to provide readjustment counseling services to these veterans, the VA developed Vietnam Veteran Outreach Centers, now known as Vet Centers. These centers, staffed primarily by veterans, continue to provide counseling, especially for those suffering from Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). They are still used, and are often preferred, by returning combatants from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Excerpted from For Service to Your Country by PETER S. GAYTAN MARIAN EDELMAN BORDEN Copyright © 2008 by Peter S. Gaytan and Marian Edelman Borden. Excerpted by permission of CITADEL PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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