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Library of Congress Veterans' History Project

GI Bill Poster from the National Archives
Society and Community:
Coming Home
More on This Story:
Veterans Benefit History

General Douglas MacArthur made lines adapted from a music hall song forever famous when he quoted them in his 1951 speech to a joint session of Congress. "Old soldiers never die, they just fade away," he said. Some critics say the United States has taken that sentiment too much to heart when caring for its veterans — ignoring or neglecting problems with the system, and those afflicting individuals.

The U.S. has a long history of providing some benefits for those who have served, and been wounded in conflict. Learn more about the landmarks in this history of the American veteran below.

Ira Harris Guard 5th New-York Cavalry, Civil War Treasures from the New-York Historical Society, PR-055-3-212

Even before the Revolutionary War, American colonies paid benefits to soldiers. In 1636, Plymouth Colony ordered that any disabled soldier injured while defending the colony would be maintained by the Colony for life.

In 1780, the Continental Congress attempted to boost recruitment by promising officers half pay for seven years and enlisted soldiers a mustering out bonus of $80 if they served to the conclusion of the war. The Congress also provided pensions for those disabled in the conflict. Others were promised land for their service. Today, internet genealogy sites are full of those trying to prove their ancestors' Revolutionary War status in order to trace these land grants.

In the early years of the Republic, states were charged with providing medical and hospital care for disabled veterans — the first federal facility was founded in 1811. In the early 19th century the government expanded benefits and pensions not only for veterans, but also their widows and dependents. By the end of the Mexican War in 1848, American veterans numbered in the hundreds of thousands.

The Hero of Gettysburg, Civil War Treasures from the New-York Historical Society, nhnycw/ad ad10004

The toll taken on the American populace by the Civil War is well-known. At the end of the war there were approximately 1,900,000 Union Army veterans on the federal rolls. There were only slightly fewer veterans on the Confederate side. The federal government founded the National Home for Disabled Soldiers, and many states followed suit. Federal pensions and benefits were paid only to Union soldiers. Only in 1958 were Confederate veterans pardoned and pensions given to those few who were still living.

Bonus Veterans. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Theodor Horydczak Collection, LC-H824-0224

World War I greatly added to the veterans rolls of the United States: 5,000,000 returning soldiers and 200,000 wounded. To meet the anticipated needs of this large group, Congress authorized a new protocol for awarding veterans' benefits in 1917. The new program included disability compensation and vocational rehabilitation, insurance for active-duty personnel and veterans. Three agencies took charge of the programs: the Veterans Bureau, the Bureau of Pensions of the Interior Department, and the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers. In 1930 all functions were collected under the Veterans Administration, the forerunner of today's Department of Veterans Affairs.

In 1924, World War I veterans were promised a bonus payment of $1,000 with payment due in 1945. As the Great Depression deepened in 1932, some 12,000 to 15,000 veterans and their families began to converge on Washington, D.C. to demand immediate payment of the bonus. The "Bonus Expeditionary Force" — or Bonus Army — camped out in shantytowns along the Anacostia River. According to the Library of Congress, by July of 1932, there were 25,000 in the Bonus camp, making it a potent symbol of shame for the President when referred to as the largest "Hooverville" in the country.

The House of Representatives proposed, the Patman Bonus Bill, which proposed immediate payment of the veterans' cash bonuses. However, facing formidable opposition of some Republicans and from President Hoover, who feared the nearly $2 billion cost, the bill was defeated in the Senate. Then came the "Death March," nearly 20,000 veterans walked slowing up and down Pennsylvania Avenue for three days.

Though the bill had been defeated, many Bonus Marchers stayed in Washington. In late July, two bonus marchers were shot by police and riots ensured. President Hoover authorized the clearing of the Bonus Army camp by the military. Troops under the command of General Douglas MacArthur, including a machine-gun squadron and a number of tanks, the shantytown was destroyed and the marchers and families dispersed with tear gas. President Hoover's administration never recovered from the images of citizens fleeing before the troops.

Veterans Administration GI Bill Poster, National Archives, NWDNS-44-PA-2260

The spectre of the Bonus Army remained in the minds of those considering the fate of the veterans of World War II. This time there were over 16,000,000 Americans who served during the war. In 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the "Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944," better known as the "GI Bill of Rights." This bill has been called by some historians the most important piece of legislation since the Homestead Act. Drafted by the American Legion, the bill provided for tuition, books and living expenses for up to four years of college or vocational schools. It made low-interest mortgages available to for homeowners, and farm and small business loans at low interest as well. There was also a twenty dollar a week allowance for returning vets looking for employment. The bill also established veterans' hospitals and provided for vocational rehabilitation for disabled veterans.

The impact of the G.I. Bill was immense; over one million veterans enrolled in college in 1946 alone. By 1956, over 10 million veterans had used the educational benefit. From 1944 to 1949, nearly 9 million veterans received close to $4 billion from the unemployment compensation program. The Veterans' Administration offered insured loans until 1962, and they totaled more than $50 billion.

Subsequent legislation extended these benefits to veterans of the Korean War, and the Readjustment Benefits Act of 1966 extended them to all who served in the armed forces even in peacetime. An updated G.I. Bill of Rights, called the Montgomery G.I. Bill is now in effect.

  • Visit the G.I. Bill Web Site
  • Department of Veterans Affairs

  • Bien Hoa, Vietnam. Personnel destined to return to the U.S., wait at the Bien Hoa Air Terminal for a National Airlines flight home., 02/15/1968, National Archives

    Even those Americans who were not alive to greet those returning from the Korean and Vietnam conflicts know that the reception they received bore little resemblance to that of previous generations. COMING HOME, THE DEER HUNTER, PLATOON, BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY — these are just the Hollywood interpretations of the alienation and trauma faced by returning soldiers.

    The problems remain decades later. According to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans (NCHV), and the Veterans Administration itself, there are more than 299,321 veterans homeless on any given night. Over half a million veterans will experience homelessness over the course of a year — according to NCHV, "one out of every four homeless males is sleeping in a doorway, alley, or box in our cities and rural communities."

    Today some veterans of the first Gulf War are fighting for recognition of their medical maladies as Gulf War Syndrome. As illustrated in NOW's presentation "Coming Home," disabled veterans are facing many challenges.

  • Learn more about veterans and veterans issues.

  • Sources: THE OXFORD HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES; American Memory, the Library of Congress; The GI Bill Web Site; Vietnam Veterans Homepage; Slave Narratives from the Federal Writer's Project, 1936-1938, Library of Congress; Department of Veterans Affairs; National Coalition for Homeless Veterans; Tennessee State Archives;

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