Happy 87th birthday Veterans Affairs!

By Jonathan Kaupanger

For trivia buffs, 1930 was a pretty good year.

American outlaw Bonnie Parker met bank robber Clyde Barrow.  The first Mickey Mouse comic strip appears.  Pluto (the dwarf planet, not Mickey’s dog) is discovered.  Greta Garbo stars in “Anna Christie,” her first talkie.  The Twinkie is invented (whoo-hoo!).

And on July 21, President Herbert Hoover signs Executive Order 5398 to “consolidate and coordinate Government activities affecting war veterans,” and Veterans Affairs is born.

Ok, so technically it was the Veterans Administration back then and didn’t mature into the Department of Veterans Affairs until 1988 when President Ronald Reagan changed it to a cabinet-level executive department. The change took effect the following year. 

President George H. W. Bush at the time said, “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.”

Before this though, the U.S. tried on several occasions to help out its veterans. The first real law to help out veterans was actually passed in 1636, when the Plymouth Pilgrims passed legislation to help soldiers disabled in the war with the Pequot Indians.  Other notable veteran-centric laws include pensions for Revolutionary War vets in 1789.  During the Civil War, Congress passed a bill that let the president buy land to be used as national cemeteries. The Sherwood Act in 1912 gave Union veterans a pension.

In 1924, Congress seemed to play a joke on veterans by passing the World War Adjustment Compensation Act. It was a bonus system for WWI vets.  Any veteran entitled to more than $50 was given a certificate worth $1,500.  Only it wasn’t payable until 20 years later.

bonus army on capitol lawn cph 3a00515 Happy 87th birthday Veterans Affairs!

Members of the Bonus Army on the U.S. Capitol lawn, Washington, D.C. (Library of Congress photo)

The Veterans Administration was born from the ashes of the scandalous Veterans Bureau (VB). The first director of the VB stole money, took bribes, sold supplies meant for ill veterans and pocketed the money, stepped out on his wife and received a presidential beat down in the White House.  It was bad.  Very bad, but the scandals didn’t stop with the creation of the new administration.

WWI veterans and their families, 43,000 in total, marched on Washington, D.C. in 1932, demanding their promised war bonuses.

The U.S. attorney general ordered them to leave all federal property, but when they refused, the D.C. Police hit the protesters with resistance, killing two veterans.

The “Bonus Army” as the marchers were called, eventually were driven out of the city by the Army’s Chief of Staff, General Douglas MacArthur.

A series of 1945 news reports, telling of shoddy care in VA run hospitals — a scandal that seems all too familiar today ended with the VA administrator resigning. In 1947, a government commission uncovered what it called enormous waste, duplication and inadequate care in the VA system. 

Eight years later saw another government commission coming back with the same results.

In the ‘70’s, veterans were frustrated with the VA for failing to fund treatment and assistance programs. VA hospitals in Denver and New Orleans were found to have declined in the quality of care. 

VA officials were caught diverting or just refusing to spend congressional approved money on Vietnam veterans in the 80’s.  In 1986, VA’s inspector general finds 93 VA physicians who had sanction against their medical licenses, including suspensions and revocations.

In the 1990’s, it’s reported that VA doctors in Chicago ignored test results, failed to treat patients in a timely manner and would perform unnecessary surgeries. The agency took responsibility for eight veteran patient deaths.

The new century brought along more VA disgraces. Problems with research trials that involved humans, 26.5 million vets have their personal info stolen, poorly disinfected equipment resulted in 37 vets testing positive for hepatitis and six testing positive for HIV.  Graves being misidentified, contract kickbacks and the now infamous secret appointment waiting list in Phoenix.

Even during these bad times, the VA never stopped trying to do right by our veterans.

In 1946 the VA developed better therapies to treat tuberculosis, schizophrenia, diabetes, depression, heart disease, and stroke.   The implantable cardiac pacemaker was created by VA researchers in 1958.  In 1960 they pioneered the concept that led to the development of the CAT scan. 

The first successful liver transplant happened in 1968, by VA doctors.

Smokers that quit by using the nicotine patch have the VA to thank. Upgrades to treatments for spinal cord injuries, hepatitis C, and anemia all come from VA. 

In 1991 the VA developed the Functional Electrical Stimulation systems that allow patients to move paralyzed limbs.  The list of accomplishments that come from VA’s Office of Research and Development is long, but you can find it here.

The Department of Veterans Affairs is 87 today. Since becoming a cabinet-level agency there have been six acting and nine actual VA secretaries.  The current secretary, Dr. David Shulkin, doesn’t worry too much about the past, he mainly thinks about the future of the VA.

“One of the things I know is that my ability to predict the future is not great,” Shulkin said. “I do know that the world in an increasingly a dangerous place.  It is essential that we have a strong military to keep us protected, and if past history predicts the future, there is likely to be new conflicts that Americans are involved in.  I hope that’s not the case, but if it is it’s our job to be prepared.  To be sure when we send somebody off to battle – to defend us – that we are there, for the rest of their lifetime, to make sure that they’ll be taken care of.  And that’s really what I worry about in this job.”

Happy birthday VA! Now, all veterans need some cake.

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