Department of Veteran’s Affairs Volunteer Week – Brief evolution of volunteer programs in VA’s history

Courtesy of the VA Public Affairs Office

In times of war or crisis, there have always been caring individuals who willingly donate personal time, money, materials, equipment, supplies or services to assist others in our community or nation for a particular cause.  But not until the American Civil War did large groups of volunteers organize in such a way as to change society itself. 

      During the Civil War, women knitted socks and hats, sewed shirts, made bandages, baked goods, prepared “comfort bags,” conducted fairs to raise money, and much more, as volunteers to aid the war effort. The U.S. Sanitary Commission, a volunteer organization was chartered by Congress in 1861 to aid the U.S. Army medical department, and much of their work changed America in countless ways.  Poet Walt Whitman, Landscape Architect Frederick Law Olmsted, and hundreds of others were volunteers of the U.S. Sanitary Commission.

      Today’s Veterans Health Administration originated in 1865 as an idea to provide an asylum or oasis for the nation’s sick and disabled soldiers of the Civil War.  It was largely through the efforts of volunteers with the U.S. Sanitary Commission, during the war, that the need for such an institution was even realized. This corps of volunteers led the charge for Congress to take action and provide for the nation’s sick and disabled patriots.  Their efforts bore fruit when the first national asylum opened in Togus, Maine.  Clara Barton, a U.S. Sanitary Commission nurse during the Civil War, founded the American Red Cross in 1881 and was its leader for 23 years. 

      Once the first national asylum, later known as the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers, opened, countless caring and philanthropic citizens donated money, equipment, even libraries and theaters, to enhance the lives of veterans living there.  For example, in 1873, “Mrs. B. Rouse, president, Miss Mary Clark Brayton, secretary, and Miss Ellen F. Terry, treasurer, of the Soldiers Aid Society of Northern Ohio, the Cleveland branch of the U.S. Sanitary Commission—propos[ed] to donate to the hospital of the Central Branch at Dayton [now Dayton VAMC], a pleasure-carriage, with horses, harnesses, etc., for the use of patients. . ..”  Over its 65 years of operation, the National Homes benefited from voluntary donations, visits, and services of many charitable individuals and organizations.

      American medicine and society had greatly changed by the time the U.S. became involved in World War I, so new solutions were sought in caring for injured war veterans.  The Bureau of War Risk Insurance and Public Health Service were charged with providing hospitals and medical care to World War 1 veterans, in cooperation with the National Homes and private organizations, which led to creation of the largest volunteer program, at the time, to aid in taking care of World War 1 veterans.  On May 15, 1919, Miss Ruth Emerson, formerly in charge of the Public Health Service’s social service work, was placed in charge of the Red Cross Home Service to “provide supplemental comforts and recreation for persons under treatment” at all 32 Public Health Service veterans hospitals.  In 1921, the Public Health Service veterans hospitals, staff, and volunteers became part of the new Veterans Bureau.  In 1925, it was reported that “each and every institution has had the able assistance of the American Red Cross, the Knights of Columbus, and other organizations, in organizing and carrying out diversional and entertainments for the benefit of the patient. . . what has been stated elsewhere of the value of diversional occupation in general applies with particular force to patients suffering from nervous and mental diseases.”  American Red Cross volunteers continued to provide invaluable services to veterans even after the Veterans Bureau became the Veterans Administration in 1930.  For nearly 30 years, Red Cross provided the volunteer program and volunteers, including magicians, musicians, movie stars, and others, at VA and its predecessor.


     In 1946, as part of General Omar Bradley’s modernization and transformation of the Veterans Administration, the VA established its own volunteer program under a new Special Services department.  In 1950, they worked with “the Artists Veterans Hospital Programs, Musicians Emergency fund, [and] arranged for the appearance of more than 200 top-ranking music celebrities and bands, including the Armed Forces, at the hospitals. . .The use of volunteers in the motion picture program has made possible many more showings of motion pictures to nonambulant patients than would have been possible if only employed personnel were available.”  For nearly 70 years, the work of VA’s volunteer program, known as VA Voluntary Service (VAVS) has grown far beyond merely providing “supplemental comfort and recreation” to veterans.  VAVS staff work with hundreds of thousands of volunteers and veterans service organizations who selflessly donate millions of hours of their personal time and pour their hearts and souls into helping veterans.


     On December 16, 2009, the VA Medical Center at Louisville, Kentucky, became the first facility to be named after a VA volunteer:  World War 1 veteran and 23-year VAVS volunteer Robley Rex 

Please THANK A VA VOLUNTEER this week for helping us and our veterans!


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