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VA History Office


VA History

History - Department of Veterans Affairs (VA)

The United States has the most comprehensive system of assistance for Veterans of any nation in the world, with roots that can be traced back to 1636, when the Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony were at war with the Pequot Indians. The Pilgrims passed a law that stated that disabled soldiers would be supported by the colony.

Later, the Continental Congress of 1776 encouraged enlistments during the Revolutionary War, providing pensions to disabled soldiers. In the early days of the Republic, individual states and communities provided direct medical and hospital care to Veterans. In 1811, the federal government authorized the first domiciliary and medical facility for Veterans. Also, in the 19th century, the nation's Veterans assistance program was expanded to include benefits and pensions not only for Veterans, but for their widows and dependents.

Group of Civil War Veterans enjoy dining.Following the Civil War, many state Veterans homes were established. Since domiciliary care was available at all state Veterans homes, incidental medical and hospital treatment was provided for all injuries and diseases, whether or not of service origin. Indigent and disabled Veterans of the Civil War, Indian Wars, Spanish-American War, and Mexican Border period, as well as the discharged regular members of the Armed Forces, received care at these homes.

As the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, Congress established a new system of Veterans benefits, including programs for disability compensation, insurance for service personnel and Veterans, and vocational rehabilitation for the disabled. By the 1920s, three different federal agencies administered the various benefits: the Veterans Bureau, the Bureau of Pensions of the Interior Department, and the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers.

Drawing of a National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers.The first consolidation of federal Veterans programs took place August 9, 1921, when Congress combined all World War I Veterans programs to create the Veterans Bureau. Public Health Service Veterans’ hospitals were transferred to the bureau, and an ambitious hospital construction program for World War I Veterans commenced.

World War I was the first fully mechanized war, and as a result, soldiers who were exposed to mustard gas and other chemicals and fumes required specialized care after the war. Tuberculosis and neuro-psychiatric hospitals opened to accommodate Veterans with respiratory or mental health problems. A majority of existing VA hospitals and medical centers began as National Home, Public Health Service, or Veterans Bureau hospitals. In 1924, Veterans benefits were liberalized to cover disabilities that were not service-related. In 1928, admission to the National Homes was extended to women, National Guard and militia Veterans.

The second consolidation of federal Veterans programs took place July 21, 1930, when President Herbert Hoover signed Executive Order 5398 and elevated the Veterans Bureau to a federal administration—creating the Veterans Administration—to "consolidate and coordinate Government activities affecting war veterans." At that time, the National Homes and Pension Bureau also joined the VA.

The three component agencies became bureaus within the Veterans Administration. Brig. Gen. Frank T. Hines, who had directed the Veterans Bureau for seven years, was named the first Administrator of Veterans Affairs, a job he held until 1945.

Dr. Charles Griffith, VA’s second Medical Director, came from the Public Health Service and Veterans Bureau. Both he and Hines were the longest serving executives in VA’s history.

Following World War II, there was a vast increase in the Veteran population, and Congress enacted large numbers of new benefits for war Veterans—the most significant of which was the World War II GI Bill, signed into law June 22, 1944. It is said the GI Bill had more impact on the American way of life than any law since the Homestead Act of 1862.

The GI Bill placed VA second to the War and Navy Departments in funding and personnel priorities. Modernizing VA for a new generation of Veterans was crucial, and replacement of the “Old Guard” World War I leadership became a necessity.

GI Bill

The VA Home Loan Guaranty Program is the only provision of the original GI Bill that is still in force. Between the end of World War II and 1966, one-fifth of all single-family residences built were financed by the GI Bill for either World War II or Korean War Veterans. From 1944 through December 1993, VA guaranteed 13.9 million home loans valued at more than $433.1 billion.

President Roosevelt signs Veteran legislation.Eligible loan guaranty users are now able to negotiate loan terms, including the interest rate, which helps VA loan participants to compete better in the housing market. The loan guaranty program no longer has a terminating date and can be used by any Veteran who served after Sept. 16, 1940, as well as men and women on active duty, surviving spouses and reservists.

To assist the Veteran between discharge and reemployment, the 1944 GI Bill also provided unemployment benefits of $20 per week, for a maximum of 52 weeks. It was a lesser amount than the unemployment benefits available to non-veterans. This assistance avoided a repetition of the World War I demobilization, when unemployed Veterans were reduced to relying on charities for food and shelter.

Critics dubbed the benefit the “52-20 Club” and predicted most Veterans would avoid jobs for the 52 weeks that the checks were available.

But only a portion of Veterans were paid the maximum amount available. Less than one-fifth of the potential benefits were claimed, and only one out of 19 Veterans exhausted the full 52 weeks of checks.

In 1945, General Omar Bradley took the reins at VA and steered its transformation into a modern organization.

In 1946, Public Law 293 established the Department of Medicine and Surgery within VA, along with numerous other programs like the VA Voluntary Service. The law enabled VA to recruit and retain top medical personnel by modifying the civil service system. When Bradley left in 1948, there were 125 VA hospitals.

President Reagan makes VA a cabinet position.The VA was elevated to a cabinet-level executive department by President Ronald Reagan in October 1988. The change took effect March 15, 1989, and administrative changes occurred at all levels. President George H. W. Bush hailed the creation of the new Department, saying, "There is only one place for the Veterans of America, in the Cabinet Room, at the table with the President of the United States of America." The Veterans Administration was then renamed the Department of Veterans Affairs, and continued to be known as VA.

VA’s Department of Medicine and Surgery, established in 1946, was re-designated as the Veterans Health Services and Research Administration at that time, though on May 7, 1991, the name was changed to the Veterans Health Administration (VHA).

Veterans Health Administration (VHA)

VHA evolved from the first federal soldiers’ facility established for Civil War Veterans of the Union Army. On March 3, 1865—a month before the Civil War ended and the day before his second inauguration—President Abraham Lincoln signed a law to establish a national soldiers and sailors asylum. Renamed as the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers in 1873, it was the first-ever government institution created specifically for honorably discharged volunteer soldiers. The first national home opened November 1, 1866, near Augusta, Maine. The national homes were often called “soldiers’ homes” or “military homes,” and only soldiers who fought for the Union Army—including U.S. Colored Troops—were eligible for admittance. These sprawling campuses became the template for succeeding generations of federal Veterans’ hospitals.

By 1929, the federal system of national homes had grown to 11 institutions that spanned the country and accepted Veterans of all American wars.

But it was World War I that brought about the establishment of the second largest system of Veterans’ hospitals. In 1918, Congress tasked two Treasury agencies - the Bureau of War Risk Insurance and Public Health Service - with operating hospitals specifically for returning World War I Veterans. They leased hundreds of private hospitals and hotels for the rush of returning injured war Veterans and began a program of building new hospitals.

Today’s VHA - the largest of the three administrations that comprise VA - continues to meet Veterans’ changing medical, surgical and quality-of-life needs. New programs provide treatment for traumatic brain injuries, post-traumatic stress, suicide prevention, women Veterans, homeless Veterans and more. VA has opened outpatient clinics, and established telemedicine and other services to accommodate a diverse Veteran population, and continues to cultivate ongoing medical research and innovation to improve the lives of America’s patriots.

VHA operates one of the largest health care systems in the world and provides training for a majority of America’s medical, nursing and allied health professionals. Roughly 60 percent of all medical residents obtain a portion of their training at VA hospitals; and VA medical research programs benefit society at-large.

The VA health care system has grown from 54 hospitals in 1930 to 1,600 health care facilities today, including 144 VA Medical Centers and 1,232 outpatient sites of care of varying complexity.

Veteran Benefits Administration (VBA)

The origins of the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) date back to the country’s earliest days. During the American Revolution, the Continental Congress passed the first national pension laws for wounded or injured soldiers but left it to the states to distribute relief. After 1789, the federal government assumed responsibility for the pension system. In the early 1800s, a small office of three in the War Department handled the clerical work relating to claims and the few thousand Veterans on the pension rolls. As the number of beneficiaries increased over the decades, so did the size of the workforce.

By the mid-1830s, the Bureau of Pensions, as the office came to be called, employed a staff of 18 dispensing $2-3 million in payments annually to some 40,000 Veterans, widows, and dependent children. Clerks in the Washington, D.C. office reported to the Commissioner of Pensions, a presidentially appointed position created by Congress in 1833. Another Congressional Act in 1849 transferred the Pension Bureau to the newly created Department of the Interior, where it would remain until 1930.

The pension system grew dramatically after the Civil War. For the first time, the federal government regarded diseases contracted during military service as grounds for claiming disability. From 1863 to 1888, the Pension Bureau received on average 40,000 applications a year from Union Veterans or their survivors. An 1890 law expanded eligibility even further by granting pensions to any Union Veteran too infirm to work. Within a decade, pension numbers more than tripled, from 303,000 in 1883 to 966,000 in 1893.

Spending on pensions also soared and routinely consumed more than 30 percent of the federal budget in the 1890s. (These payments only ceased when the last Civil War beneficiary, the daughter of a Union soldier, died in 2020 at age 90). By this time, the bureau had grown so large that Congress funded construction of a new building to house the 2,000 men and women who worked in the capital. The massive Italian Renaissance Revival-style structure occupied a full city block and would serve as the Pension Bureau’s headquarters from 1885 to 1926. In addition to the Washington, D.C. workforce, the bureau employed another 400 persons at 18 pension agencies in cities across the country.

Pension Building, c. 1920.
Pensions Building, c. 1920.

During World War I, the federal government introduced two new types of Veterans benefits: insurance and vocational training for the disabled. These programs were first handled by separate organizations until Congress in 1921 centralized their management in the Veterans Bureau. Meanwhile, the Bureau of Pensions continued to administer the pension system for Veterans of previous wars. In 1930, Congress decided to consolidate all Veterans benefits and services in a single federal agency, the Veterans Administration.

Group of Pension Bureau special examiners, 1904. The Veterans Administration faced unprecedented challenges after World War II. Millions of returning Service members sought to collect on the benefits they were eligible for, including the education and loan assistance offered by the 1944 GI Bill. The volume of business was staggering. In the first five months following the war, VA processed 1.5 million disability claims alone. By the time the provisions of the WWII GI Bill had expired, the agency had helped more than 12 million Veterans advance their education or secure low-interest home loans. 

To increase efficiency and better manage its workload, VA carried out an internal reorganization in 1953 that led to the establishment of the Department of Veterans Benefits, the direct forerunner of the Veterans Benefits Administration. The department was responsible for overseeing all types of benefits except for insurance. In 1989, the restructuring that accompanied the creation of the Department of Veterans Affairs united insurance with the other major benefit programs managed by VBA.  

From its humble beginnings in the Revolutionary era, the Veterans Benefits Administration has grown into a dynamic organization employing more than 24,000 people in its Washington, D.C. headquarters office, and at 56 regional offices. VBA now distributes almost $135 billion in benefits and services annually to nearly 6 million Veterans and their family members.

VBA also continues to evolve. In the last decade, it has made great strides in digitizing records, automating processes, and implementing other modernization initiatives to improve delivery of benefits to the Veteran community.

National Cemetery Administration (NCA)

The National Cemetery Administration (NCA) is one of three federal agencies responsible for managing national cemeteries in the United States.  Its mission includes the oversight of most national cemeteries and the provision of grave markers for qualified Veterans. The origin of all national cemeteries begins with the Civil War (1861-1865) and President Abraham Lincoln.

In the war’s second year, on July 17, 1862, Congress enacted legislation that authorized Lincoln “to purchase cemetery grounds…to be used as a national cemetery for the soldiers who shall die in the service of the country.” After the war, the National Cemetery Act of February 22, 1867, was the first law to finance and develop national cemeteries through the acquisition of land, buildings, walls, and permanent upright marble headstones. 

Entry to Alexandria Virginia National Cemetery with wood archway, 1869. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.Wooden entry archway to Alexandria National Cemetery in Virginia, 1869. (Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.)

When the Union dead reburial program concluded in 1871, the Army reported that 300,000 remains were reinterred in 73 national cemeteries or in soldiers’ lots located within private cemeteries. This was the first time a country gathered its dead in Veterans’ cemeteries created to honor their service. While burials in the first national cemeteries were only for Veterans who died in the Civil War, burial criteria have expanded dramatically in the areas of family eligibility and military service over the years.

The 1930s saw major changes associated with national cemeteries.  Established 1930, VA assumed responsibility for the National Homes for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers, whose burial grounds would become national cemeteries. Flat grave markers were introduced. Seven new cemeteries were built between 1934 and 1939 in major cities based on Veteran demographics. The Army transferred 14 Civil War national cemeteries to what is now the National Park Service.  

The National Cemeteries Act of 1973 (PL 93-43) was enacted on June 18, 1973, transferring stewardship of the 112-year-old National Cemetery System from the Army to VA:  82 national cemeteries and 33 soldiers lots. The Army retained Arlington National Cemetery and Soldiers’ & Sailor’s Home National Cemetery. Concurrently, VA re-designated its 21 burial grounds to create a network of 103 national cemeteries. The act also transferred responsibility for the provision of government-issued Veteran headstones/markers to VA.

Hemicycle at Houston Texas National Cemetery.Hemicycle at the Houston National Cemetery in Texas.

VA began opening new national cemeteries in the 1970s, and in 1978, the Veterans Cemetery Grants Program was established to assist states, territories and federally recognized tribal governments provide gravesites where VA cemeteries are not located.

On November 11, 1998, the Veterans Programs Enhancement Act of 1998 renamed the National Cemetery System as the National Cemetery Administration, and the NCA principal was elevated from Director to Under Secretary of Veterans Affairs for Memorial Affairs. 

NCA opened 17 new cemeteries between 1997 and 2010, and it has continued to introduce memorial products to honor Veterans’ service.  VA provides a headstone/marker/medallion, U.S. flag, and Presidential Memorial Certificate.  About 15 percent of all eligible servicemembers are interred in a VA national cemetery; about 5 percent opt for a State, Territorial or Tribal Veterans Cemetery.

Headstones at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in Missouri.Headstones at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in Missouri.

The NCA system is composed of more than 150 national cemeteries and soldiers’ lots, and it is the only federal agency developing new Veteran cemeteries. These memorial landscapes convey meaningful stories about the diversity of American history - patriotic and partisan service, racial and gender equality, religious beliefs, and ranks from private to fleet admiral. VA cemeteries contain more than 400 recipients of the Medal of Honor, and approximately 1,370 memorial monuments. Nearly 4.9 million individuals, including Veterans of every conflict from the Revolutionary War to the Global War on Terror, are honored by burial in VA national cemeteries.

Secretaries of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

Ed Derwinski March 15, 1989 – September 26, 1992
Jesse Brown January 22, 1993 – July 3, 1997
Togo D. West Jr. January 2, 1998 – July 25, 2000
Anthony Principi January 23, 2001 – January 26, 2005
Jim Nicholson January 26, 2005 – October 1, 2007
Retired Lt. Gen. James Peake December 20, 2007 – January 20, 2009
Retired Gen. Eric Shinseki January 20, 2009 – May 30, 2014
Robert A. McDonald July 30, 2014 – January 20, 2017
David Shulkin February 14, 2017 – March 28, 2018
Robert Wilkie July 30, 2018 – January 20, 2021
Denis McDonough February 8, 2021 – Present

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