In 1946, VA Voluntary Service was established as part of General Omar Bradley’s modernization of the Veterans Administration.Posted: June 7, 2017
In June 1945, less than two months after Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death and Harry S. Truman assumed the presidency, he selected fellow Missourian General Omar Bradley to head the Veterans Administration. Bradley was confirmed and took his place at VA in August of that year. Bradley was charged with modernizing VA and he wasted no time in doing so. He established a national chaplain service in November and after getting congressional approval to create a professional Department of Medicine and Surgery in January 1946, set out establish other vital services to improve care for veterans. The Army had a long and successful record of working with volunteers and social organizations, and he knew that VA could benefit from coordinating volunteers at a national level, too.
The roots of large-scale volunteerism began during the Civil War. Men, women, and children in both the Confederate and Union territories who could not fight in the war, volunteered to do anything needed to help soldiers and the war effort. In June 1861 President Lincoln authorized the U.S. Sanitary Commission, an entirely volunteer group from New York, to help the Union Army medical department and legions of short-term “volunteer” soldiers that were enlisting to fight in the war. Local branches were established in many cities and “sanitary fairs” were held to raise money that bought ambulances, hospital ships, medical supplies, and personal items for wounded and convalescing soldiers. These volunteers documented burial locations for soldiers who died from their wounds, wrote letters to families, read to soldiers, and much more to comfort them or their families.
The U.S. Sanitary Commission was the largest national volunteer organization in American history at the time, igniting passions for those fighting the war and attracting thousands of volunteers like poet Walt Whitman, Clara Barton, and Frederick Law Olmsted to help them. Service with the U.S. Sanitary Commission inspired many of its volunteers to continue the work after the war, resulting in numerous new social and veterans fraternal organizations. The Grand Army of the Republic and American Red Cross are examples of Sanitary Commission spin-offs that were established after the war to provide services not only to veterans, but to their widows, families, and orphans, as well as immigrants and the poor. The U.S. Sanitary Commission played an essential role in proving the need for “soldiers homes” after the war that resulted in the establishment of the first federal institution in the world solely for disabled veterans of the “volunteer” forces in 1865. That institution, initially known as the National Asylum for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers, was the origins of what today is known as VA’s Veterans Health Administration.
The passion for disabled soldiers and veterans, which sprang to life on a massive and national scale during the Civil War, became a new part of the American ethos, after the war, and VA and its predecessors were beneficiaries of that good will. During World War I, the Treasury Department was tasked with providing medical care to World War I disabled veterans, through its Bureau of War Risk Insurance(BWRI) and Public Health Service (PHS). Surgeon General Rupert Blue asked the American Red Cross for help and their volunteers supplied a significant auxiliary workforce that ranged from filing clerks to nurses and social workers. The Red Cross provided the first organized coordination of volunteer services in federal veterans programs, but as the Veterans Bureau, and later the Veterans Administration, took over roles once done by the Red Cross, much of that was lost.
As the U.S. geared up to fight yet another war in 1941, volunteer organizations once again came to the aid of service men and women and VA. General Bradley knew very well the important role that volunteers played in maintaining morale and hope in his troops during the war and that they could do the same for them as veterans. Bradley established a Special Services Division in 1946, just like Army had, which included a chaplain service, voluntary service coordination (VAVS), recreation service, and canteen service. Establishing a national office with experienced staff to meet with leaders of volunteer and veterans organizations was a common-sense move that has seen VA’s volunteer program grow, professionally, over the past 70 years into one of the largest, most experienced, and respected corps of volunteers in the federal government.
While VAVS celebrates its 70th anniversary this year, it continues the work with veterans that began 155 years ago, and has found its own place in American history. I dare say that the men and women of the U.S. Sanitary Commission would be most proud of their modern brothers and sisters caring for this generation of veterans.