Veterans Of Foreign Wars
Since the late 18th century U.S. servicemen and women have been deployed overseas. Today there is more support for those who have served but veterans continue to fight for just compensation.
Abraham Lincoln famously raised the need for veterans and their families to be looked after towards the end of the Civil War. In his second inaugural address in 1865 he stated that the nation needed “to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan”.
Sick and scarred, veterans began forming local organizations in 1899 when they returned from the Spanish-American War and the Philippine-American War. Supporting each other, they worked to secure rights and benefits for their service.
Later these organizations combined to form the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the first national organization within the United States that represented returned soldiers from abroad. Membership increased steadily as more returned servicemen from foreign wars became disgruntled with the government response to their predicament.
There was some recognition by Congress that veterans needed support when the United States entered World War I. A new system of benefits was established including programs for disability compensation, insurance, and rehabilitation for the disabled. But many argued it didn’t go far enough.
Following World War I the veterans’ organizations became more organized in fighting for their rights. They believed that soldiers should be entitled to additional compensation for sacrifices they had made while others stayed home to earn higher wages.
Congress responded with the Adjusted Compensation Act of 1924 which gave a "bonus" to each veteran – though this was not to be paid until 1945. As the Depression worsened, the veterans became frustrated with the delay in the payment and they began to lobby Congress and President Roosevelt. Their pleas fell on deaf ears and in 1932 some 20,000 veterans marched on the Capitol in protest.
Membership of the Veterans of Foreign Wars grew in response to the Bonus Movement, increasing from 5,000 in 1915 to almost 200,000 in 1936, when Roosevelt’s veto of the Bonus Bill was finally overridden.
The dedication of these veterans’ to their cause prompted Congress to reconsider their treatment of soldiers who returned from foreign wars.
The veterans’ lobby groups continued to campaign for their rights, and in 1944 they achieved what many consider to be their greatest triumph – the G.I. Bill.
Officially known as the Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944, the bill provided WWII veterans funds for college education, unemployment insurance and housing. It was, as Roosevelt said on signing, “[an] emphatic notice to the men and women in our armed forces that the American people do not intend to let them down”. Over the next seven years, around 8 million veterans received educational benefits. By 1956, when it expired, the education-and-training portion of the G.I. Bill had given $14.5 billion to veterans. Nearly 2.3 million veterans participated in the program during the Korean War era and more than 8 million during the Vietnam era.
The fight for compensation continued following the Vietnam War, when it was discovered that exposure to Agent Orange (a powerful herbicide and defoliant) caused various types of cancer and genetic defects. The government initially denied that these chemicals were harmful and for two decades veterans' advocates struggled to win just compensation.
It wasn't until 1996 that the government agreed to compensate veterans that were victims of Agent Orange.
Organizations such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars continue to fight for the rights of returned servicemen to ensure that Lincoln’s promise is fulfilled, and that those who serve the nation in foreign wars are well served when they return.