Veteran’s Benefits

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Three fourths of all the men who have served in the nation’s military forces since 1775 are alive today. They number 29.4 million, which means that two out of every five males over the age of 18 are veterans. Together with their 66 million dependents they constitute nearly half—47 percent—of the current population of the United States. All of them are potential clients of the veterans’ benefits system that over the last two hundred years has cost an estimated $280 billion.

This year alone veterans’ benefits total $19 billion, an increase of nearly $3 billion over 1975. The bulk of the money will be spent on veterans of twentieth-century wars, but nearly $34 million will be shared by survivors and surviving dependents of nineteenth-century campaigns.

For instance, in 1976 the federal government will disburse $528,000 to some 450 surviving beneficiaries of Civil War pensions, even though the last Union soldier died twenty years ago at the age of 109, and the last Confederate was buried in 1959 at the age of 113. The current expenditures will bring the benefits cost of the Civil War to more than $8.5 billion.

In the current fiscal year the federal government will pay out nearly $100,000 to about ninety dependents of veterans who served in the Indian-fighting armies of the nineteenth century, even though the last veteran died three years ago at the age of 101. Total benefits to date have cost about $80 million.

Approximately $33 million in the current federal budget will go to about 1,200 veterans and 27,000 surviving dependents from the Spanish-American War of 1898. Postwar pension costs now total an estimated $5.6 billion.

All of this is the result of a comprehensive benefits program by which Congress has committed later generations to the care of soldiers from the past. Thus the last pension claims of the Revolution were not settled until 1911, a hundred and twenty-eight years after the armies had left the field. The final benefit payment for the War of 1812 came in 1946, a hundred and thirty-one years after the Treaty of Ghent. The accounts were not closed on the Mexican War until 1962, a hundred and fourteen years after it ended.

By conservative estimates, the wars of our own time (World War II, Korea, and Vietnam) will not be fully paid for until the second half of the twenty-first century. In fact, the majority of living veterans are still some years away from being eligible for many of the benefits Congress has provided in the past thirty-five years—as this profile from 1975 suggests:

Since 1930 the Veterans Administration has been responsible for all veterans’ programs. An independent agency established by Congress, the VA is now the third largest element of the federal government, exceeded in size only by the Defense Department and the Postal Service. It currently employs about 210,000 men and women, or 7.4 per cent of the federal bureaucracy. Approximately four fifths of all VA employees are medical, dental, or paramedical personnel. Overall, the VA since 1960 has annually accounted for between 3.8 and 5.1 per cent of all federal outlays. Costs for 1976 are about 5.1 per cent. This does not include the cost of retirement pay and certain other benefits provided for career men and women in the regular services. Such costs are borne by the Defense Department as part of its annual budget and are not charged to the VA .

What lies behind these expenditures for veterans is a military tradition that reaches back to the seventeenth century. Long suspicious of a standing army—and in the beginning unable to afford one—the American people, from the first settlements onward, have customarily relied upon volunteer, rather than professional, armies for protection. The bulk of our wars have been fought by civilians drawn briefly to the military life.

In recognition of this “minuteman” or militia tradition, various governments over the years have used veterans’ benefits essentially for two purposes: as inducements to enlistment in times of crisis, and as tangible expressions of the nation’s responsibility for those injured or killed in its service. As early as 1636, for example, the colonists at Plymouth addressed themselves to the problem of men who were disabled because they had been sent out by the colony on some military venture. In what may be the first piece of veterans’ legislation enacted in the New World, they voted that any man “mamed & hurt” in such circumstances was to be “maytayned competently by the colony duringe his life.”

From that relatively modest beginning, veterans’ benefits have steadily expanded in cost and in scope. The moral commitment to provide custodial care for the war-injured, the widowed, and the orphaned remains the central principle behind the work of the VA . But other social and political elements have come to play a part as well, as can be seen in a review of veterans’ benefits from past wars.

The Revolution (1775-83) was fought by about 350,000 men, of whom 4,000 lost their lives in serviceconnected deaths. The last veteran died at the age of 109 in 1869. The total cost of pensions and benefits, exclusive of land grants, was $70,045,000.

Beginning in 1775 the Continental Congress and the thirteen states each made use of bounties, bonuses, and the promise of pensions to speed recruitment. These were time-honored benefits that had been employed throughout the colonial period to raise armies against the Indians and the French.