Secretaries, Administrators, Directors in VA (& its predecessors) History

As VA welcomes its new Secretary, here are a few facts of interest about our past leaders:

Since 1833, 91 men have held the top positions in charge of executing various federal veterans’ programs that included the Pension Bureau, National Cemetery System, National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers, Bureau of War Risk Insurance, Federal Board of Vocational Education, Public Health Service, Veterans Bureau, and Veterans Administration.

Of those 91* men, five were Medal of Honor recipients (all Civil War veterans):  Gen. John C. Black (Pension Bureau), Gen. William J. Sewell (National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers), Gen. Martin T. McMahon (National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers), Gen. Richard N. Batchelder (National Cemetery System), and Gen. Charles F. Humphrey (National Cemetery System). Photo left: Gen. Martin T. McMahon, 1863 c.

Twenty-one (21) were graduates of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Fifteen (15) of those were Directors of the National Cemetery System before it was transferred from Army to VA in 1973.

To-date, only one was a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis:  Secretary Anthony Principi.

The first Spanish American War veteran in this leadership position was Gen. George H. Wood, President of the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers from 1916-1918 and 1919-1930. VA Administrator William J. Driver (1965-1969) was the first Korean War veteran and VA Administrator Max Cleland was the first Vietnam War veteran to head VA from 1977-1981.

As far as the branches of service represented in our leadership, James L. Edwards, first Commissioner of the Pension Bureau from 1833-1850, a War of 1812 veteran, and VA Secretary Jesse Brown were the only known Marines.  Hershel Gober, who served as VA Acting Secretary twice, was a Marine, but he never held the position of Secretary.  VA Administrator Robert P. Nimmo was the first leader who served in the Army Air Corps (now Air Force).  The rest were Army veterans.

Based on current available information, 10 were not veterans.


Secretary Jesse Brown (1993-1997) was the first African American and Secretary Eric K. Shinseki (2009-2014) was the first of Asian American-Pacific Islander heritage to lead VA. Photo above: Secretary Jesse Brown, 1997 c.

While the majority of leaders running federal veterans’ programs were military or government careerists, that trend shifted during the World War I era when countless new additions and sweeping changes were made to veterans benefits.  The first four men to lead the Bureau of War Risk Insurance, which provided the first life insurance benefits to military personnel and their survivors, were William C. DeLanoy, Henry D. Lindsley, Richard A. Cholmeley, and Charles R. Forbes—all businessmen from the private sector. Henry D. Lindsley was also a founding member of the American Legion at the time.

Administrator Harvey V. Higley, a World War I veteran, joined the Ansul Chemical Co. after the war and over nearly 30 years rose through the ranks to become its president and chairman of the board; he was still in charge of the company when, in 1953, he was selected by President Eisenhower to become Administrator of VA. Under Administrator Higley the Herculean task of dismantling racial segregation in VA hospitals was undertaken and successfully accomplished without a hitch. Higley was VA Administrator from 1953 – 1957.

VA’s longest-tenured administrator, Gen. Frank T. Hines (1923-1945), was running the Baltic Steamship Co. when he was selected in 1923 to take over the Veteran Bureau. Hines surely had misgivings about stepping into the midst of a brewing scandal; the bureau’s former director, Charles Forbes, was under investigation for fraud and later sentenced to prison. Hines restored public confidence and stability and, despite countless crises such as the Great Depression, Economy Act cuts, Bonus Army march, and implementing the new G.I. Bill, provided continuity in service for an entire generation of veterans. Photo bottom: Gen. Frank T. Hines, Spanish American War photo, 1899 c.


Gen. William B. Franklin (National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers), the second longest-tenured leader (1880-1899) was General Manager of the Colt Firearms Manufacturing Co. while he was President of the National Homes.  Col. Lindsley (Bureau of War Risk Insurance) was manager of the Southwestern Life Insurance Company before he was tapped to take over the helm in 1918.  After these leaders left VA (or its predecessors) they continued to make an impact in the world and here are a few examples:  General Butler became governor of Massachusetts; General Hines became ambassador of Panama; John C. Wright, Director of the Federal Board of Vocational Education, wrote numerous books on vocational education that are still cited today; General Omar Bradley, VA Administrator from 1945-1947, became President of Bulova Watch Company in the 1950s; and Max Cleland was elected to the U.S. Senate and now directs the American Battle Monuments Commission.

*includes only those who actually held the top title, does not include those in Acting capacity


story by: Historian, Veterans Health Administration


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