VA Voluntary ServicePosted: July 4, 2013
Sixty-seven (67) years ago, in 1946, as part of General Omar Bradley’s modernization of the Veterans Administration in the wake of World War II, the VA Voluntary Service (VAVS) program was established. In the history of U.S. veterans hospitals, VA Voluntary Service was the first formal program established by the federal government specifically for the proactive recruitment, retention, and management of volunteers at veterans hospitals.
Volunteers have played an especially crucial role in American soldiers’ and veterans’ lives since the Civil War. The U.S. Sanitary Commission, a volunteer organization, assisted the U.S. Army during the Civil War and virtually every wounded, disabled, or dying soldier received some form of care from them. The U.S. Sanitary Commission also played a key role in bringing about America’s first convalescent hospitals/homes for veterans of the U.S. volunteer forces–the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers (VHA origins). In VHA’s early history, back in the 19th century as the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers, few volunteers were needed as there were plenty of residents at the homes to provide assistance to their fellow comrades. Not until the early 20th century, when the Civil War population had aged significantly, did that change: civilian employees were then hired to fulfill those services.
During World War I, the Bureau of War Risk Insurance and Public Health Service provided hospitals and medical care for World War I veterans. At the time, a strong and active bond was borne between the Red Cross and these two bureaus and the role of volunteers in America’s veterans hospitals mushroomed. “In addition to the occupational therapy work, the libraries of the hospital furnish books, papers, and magazines which help to pass otherwise dull hours, valuable cooperative assistance in social recreational work has been given by the American Red Cross, the Y.M.C.A., the Knights of Columbus, and various service auxiliaries and women’s clubs.” Coordination of volunteers at Veterans Bureau and Veterans Administration hospitals was conducted largely through the Red Cross until World War II.
In 1946, VAVS was one of several new services created under the newly established office known as Office of the Assistant Administrator for Special Services. Special Services was responsible for “the development and maintenance of the well-being of veterans who are patients or members at hospitals or homes, other persons occasionally at hospitals and homes in the status of relatives and guests, and employees of the Veterans Administration” through the following services: Canteen service, Recreation and Entertainment Service, Athletic Service, Chaplaincy Service, Library Service, and Voluntary Service. In 1948 VAVS reported that it had 60,000 volunteers who provided 313,000 volunteer hours. By its fifth year, 1951, it reported 77,444 volunteers and 376,885 hours. In 1970, nearing its 25th year, VAVS reported an average of 112,000 volunteers per month, for a total of 9,791,000 volunteer hours for the year: “Volunteer services are steadily branching out into the newer care and treatment programs. In the alcoholism programs, volunteers work directly with patients in therapy programs with staff supervision. College students and adult men and women volunteers are active in companionship programs, helping patients to feel more comfortable in their relationship with persons from the community. Skilled housewives help patients with cooking and food shopping to assist them, prior to discharge, in learning about non-institutional living. This year, 19 volunteers with a minimum of 25,000 hours of service received congratulatory letters from the President.”
The VAVS National Advisory Committee (NAC) was formed as a partnership between VA and external service organizations at the national and regional levels, with the Assistant Administrator of Special Services serving as the Committee’s Chair, to ensure that veterans’ needs were met. Francis R. Kerr was the first Assistant Administrator of Special Services and James H. Parke was the first director of VAVS. Parke, a former entertainment officer in Special Services for the North African Theatre of Operations, U.S. Army (NATOUSA), during World War II, directed VAVS from 1946 until his death in 1970. In 2005, Laura Balun became the first woman to serve as director of VAVS. Since 1946, millions of volunteers have sacrificed more than 750 million hours of their personal time and poured their hearts and souls into providing support and services to America’s veterans. * Information from Historian, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs