Department of Veterans AffairsUpdated: April 5, 2021
The Department of Veteran Affairs was created, as the VA mission statement says, to “fulfill President Lincoln’s promise” to provide for those who serve in uniform and their families. Qualifying active duty, Guard, Reserve, veterans, spouses, and dependents are included under the VA “umbrella” of service and care.
The VA describes itself on the official site as, “the most comprehensive system of assistance for Veterans of any nation in the world”. The need for the Department of Veterans Affairs is obvious, but how it evolved over time reveals how much the agency’s history ties into the services it offers. An explanation of the VA would not be as complete without showing how the need for veteran care has evolved over time.
And it has taken a long time to get there–the journey starts as far back as the 1600s when Plymouth pilgrims agreed to support those who fought with indigenous peoples there, the Pequot Indians. Fast-forward to 1776, and the Continental Congress offering pensions to those who signed up to fight in the American Revolution.
In 1811, the federal government approved the very first care facilities for veterans, and from there we can see the beginnings of the evolution toward what we know today as the Department Of Veterans Affairs.
A Brief History Of The Department Of Veterans Affairs
Following the creation of those facilities for veterans in 1811, a veteran’s assistance program was initiated to allow veteran benefits, pension payments, and benefits for surviving family members where applicable.
The United States Civil War was a kind of convergence that would ultimately produce (among many other things) the forerunner of today’s Department of Veterans Affairs.
American history books are full of details of the fall of Richmond, the Confederate capital, in 1865. The Confederate President, Jefferson Davis, ran away from the Union Army along with the rest of the Confederate government.
A week later, the Confederacy surrendered to the Union. The war was over, the south was part of the Union again, and the looming, major issue of how to care for all the Americans who fought would be addressed. Necessity was a driving force in the choices that were ahead for military planners trying to provide sufficient care for those who made sacrifices in uniform.
End Of The War, Start Of The VA
This era brought a real need for the establishment of multiple state veterans homes and construction got underway in earnest. VA literature suggests that care was provided in these facilities, “incidental medical and hospital treatment was provided for all injuries and diseases, whether or not of service origin.”
By World War One in 1917, it was clear that new changes were necessary to accommodate the growing military and a growing demand for it in conflicts overseas. Congress established new programs for veterans including disability pay, vocational rehabilitation for injured vets, plus a variety of agencies including:
- Veterans Bureau
- Bureau of Pensions of the Interior Department
- National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers
There was some consolidation over the years–agencies created and later merged or otherwise partnered with others, etc. The first of these happened in 1921 when Congress blended all World War One-era programs to create a Veterans Bureau.
More Liberal Benefits
In 1924, the VA official site notes that veterans benefits, “were liberalized to cover disabilities that were not service-related” and a few years later national homes for veterans were opened to women, Guard members, and “militia Veterans”.
1930 is an important year for the VA–this was another consolidation year for veteran programs but more importantly, President Hoover signed an executive order to turn the Veterans Bureau into a federal agency. This is the true start of the Department of Veterans Affairs.
World War Two
World War Two brought with it an explosion of development for veterans–the creation of the original GI Bill is during this period, and as a result what would be known as the VA home loan program was also initiated. Many of the programs we know today have their origins as a result of World War Two.
This era established the Department of Medicine and Surgery, and other measures. By 1948, the VA had more than 100 hospitals in operation. Forty years down the road in 1988, President Ronald Reagan elevated the VA to a cabinet-level operation and it was then that the agency was formally designated as the Department of Veterans Affairs.
VA benefits are offered in a variety of areas including:
- Health Care
- Housing Assistance
- Life Insurance
- Burials and Memorials
Those who retire or separate from military service are urged to take advantage of the VA’s offerings in these areas, but especially where service-connected medical issues are concerned. Contact a VA office to learn how to get started claiming these benefits but time is of the essence–get in touch as soon as you know you will retire or separate.
Lesser-Known VA Benefits
Lesser-known VA benefits include housing grants for vets with qualifying disabilities. There are two basic grants: the Specially Adapted Housing Grant and the Special Home Adaptation Grant. As the names imply, these are intended to offset the cost of housing modifications to make a home more accessible for those with disabilities.
There’s even a special grant to help veterans make temporary modifications to a dwelling to make it more adaptable. This is called the Temporary Residence Adaptation grant. Apply directly with the VA for any of these grants or the other programs mentioned here.
VA Insurance Benefits
Another lesser-known VA benefit is Veterans’ Mortgage Life Insurance (VMLI) which provides mortgage protection insurance “to the families of Veterans with severe service-connected disabilities who’ve adapted a home to fit their needs” according to the VA official site.
Another lesser-known, but very important program is offered by the VA to those with service-connected disabilities who have limited ability to work. Veteran Readiness and Employment (Chapter 31) is the name of the former VA Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment program.
Certain dependent benefits are also not as well-known. For example, in addition to dependents being able to have their military parent’s GI Bill transferred to them, they are also eligible in certain cases for VA vocational education and training programs. For dependents to qualify, the following must be true:
- The applicant is a dependent of a Veteran, and
- The applicant is eligible for a VA education benefit
Which benefits? Any of the following:
- The Post-9/11 GI Bill (Chapter 33)
- The Montgomery GI Bill Active Duty (MGIB-AD, Chapter 30)
- The Montgomery GI Bill Selected Reserve (MGIB-SR, Chapter 1606)
Other lesser-known VA benefits for dependents include:
- Chapter 35 Survivors’ and Dependents’ Educational Assistance (DEA) is for qualifying children and spouses of veterans who have died OR are “permanently and totally disabled” OR who are missing in action (MIA) or captured / imprisoned in the line of duty.
- Chapter 18 Benefits For Certain Birth Defects is for dependents of Vietnam or Korean War veterans–these dependents have spina bifida or “certain other birth defects” according to the VA official site. Chapter 18 may include disability payments, health care, and job training options.
There are many, many entities and agencies that work under or partner with the Department of Veterans Affairs. More on those below, but first it’s important to examine the basic missions of the VA, which are broken down by the agency into four categories:
VA carries out four specific missions to make good on that commitment.
Veterans Health Care: The VA has some 1,200-plus health care facilities serving roughly nine million people.
Veterans Benefits: Providing transition assistance, benefits for education, home loans, life insurance related issues.
National Cemeteries: The VA’s National Cemetery Association maintains more than 140 veteran cemeteries nationwide.
The VA “Fourth Mission”: The VA describes a “Fourth Mission” which is essentially preparedness for war, disasters, national emergencies, etc. The goal is to provide “continued service” to veterans and their families while supporting efforts by law enforcement, public health, etc.
There is a large number of VA staff offices including:
- Acquisition, Logistics, and Construction
- Advisory Committee Management Office
- Board of Veterans’ Appeals
- Center for Faith and Opportunity Initiative
- Center for Minority Veterans
- Center for Women Veterans
- General Counsel
- Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection
- Inspector General
- Office of Congressional and Legislative Affairs
- Office of Employment Discrimination Complaint Adjudication
- Office of Human Resources and Administration
- Office of Information and Technology
- Office of Management
- Veterans Experience Office
- Office of Operations, Security and Preparedness
- Office of Enterprise Integration
- Office of Public & Intergovernmental Affairs
- Office of Regulation Policy and Management
- Office of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization
- Office of Survivors Assistance
- Veterans Service Organization Liaison
- Secretary’s Center for Strategic Partnerships
Signing Up For VA Benefits
There are many VA offices nationwide. You can begin your process by calling the VA directly at their main toll-free number, 1-800-827-1000. You can also use the Department of Veterans Affairs VA facility locator to find the office nearest you for more direct local support. All VA programs must be signed up for, benefits claimed, etc. If you aren’t sure where to begin, call the 800 number or contact a veteran service organization like the USO, Red Cross, DAV, AmVets, etc. and ask them for help with your VA benefits.
Joe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News
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