In Honor of VA’s volunteers during National Volunteer Week!

In times of war or crisis, there have always been caring individuals and organizations who quickly spring to action to help fellow human beings. They willingly sacrifice time, money, materials, equipment, supplies, or services of all kinds to assist others in their community or nation for a particular cause, with no regard to personal costs. 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 to purchase medical supplies, sat at bedside reading or writing letters, and much more, as volunteers to aid the war effort. The U.S. Sanitary Commission, a volunteer organization chartered by Congress in 1861 to aid the U.S. Army medical department, interacted with nearly every Union soldier during the war and much of their work changed America in countless ways. Poet Walt Whitman, Frederick Law Olmsted, and thousands of others were volunteers for the U.S. Sanitary Commission.

Today’s Veterans Health Administration originated in 1865 as the first asylum or oasis for the nation’s sick and disabled volunteer soldiers of the Civil War. It was largely through the efforts of U.S. Sanitary Commission staff and volunteers that the need for such an institution was even realized. 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. Their efforts bore fruit when the first national asylum opened in Togus, Maine, in the fall of 1866, with three more opening by 1870. The post fund, which allowed the national asylum to accept donations, was established in 1866. Countless philanthropic citizens donated money, equipment, even libraries and theaters, to enhance the lives of veterans living there. In 1873 the national asylum was renamed as the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers (NHDVS). That same year, “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 and the veterans they cared for benefited from donations, visits, and services of many volunteers and volunteer organizations. The heart of the nation grew phenomenally during the Civil War, fueling an unprecedented rise in the number of volunteer and fraternal organizations after the war ended.


American medicine and society had greatly changed by the time the U.S. became involved in World War I, so new solutions were sought to provide support and care to sick or injured war veterans. The Bureau of War Risk Insurance and Public Health Service were charged by Congress with providing hospitals and medical care to World War I veterans, which led to creation of the largest volunteer program, at the time, to aid 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, General Omar Bradley modernized and transformed the Veterans Administration in many ways, including establishing VA’s 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 non-ambulant 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 into one of the largest volunteer programs in the federal government and far beyond just providing “supplemental comfort and recreation” to hospitalized veterans. VAVS staff work with hundreds of thousands of volunteers, students, and veterans service organizations who kindly donate millions of hours of their personal time, pouring their hearts and souls into helping veterans feel appreciated, and thanking them in large and small ways for their service and sacrifices to the nation.

To date, two VA facilities are known to be named after VA volunteers—both of them veterans–who dedicated their “golden years” to serving fellow veterans. On July 5, 2007, Albuquerque, New Mexico, was renamed by Congress as the Raymond G. Murphy VA Medical Center after the Korean War Marine and Medal of Honor recipient who came to work at VA after the war, then served as a volunteer for over 20 years image002(photo, left). On December 16, 2009, Congress named the VA Medical Center at Louisville, Kentucky, after World War I veteran and 23-year VAVS volunteer, Robley Rex (photo,top ).

Be sure to THANK a VA volunteer today!





Historian, VA Public Affairs


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