Still Battling the Veterans’ Bureaucracy: Veteran Organizations and Returning Veterans, 2009
a post by Stephen R. Ortiz, author of Beyond the Bonus March and GI Bill: How Veteran Politics Shaped the New Deal Era
Between 2008 and 2009, 250,000 veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan applied for educational benefits made possible through the 2008 GI Bill for post-9/11 veterans. Despite over a year head start, this fall, Department of Veterans Affairs officials found the agency overwhelmed by the number of applicants creating a delay in funding for many of the 82,500 veterans matriculating across the nation. As late as October, thousands of enrolled veterans scrambled for tuition and fees payments, forcing many to apply for short-term loans or to find employment to pay their educational costs while they awaited the processing of their government benefits. Finally, as Congress called in VA officials to chastise them for the backlog, VA Secretary Gen. Eric Shinseki announced the emergency issuance of $3000 checks to veterans in this predicament.
While the VA should be commended for the relative responsiveness of the agency, in many ways the force behind the VA’s action was the collective response of veteran organizations such as the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars. These organizations—as well as the newly formed Iraq War Veterans Organization— sounded the warning on the burgeoning problem as their outreach and service programs began collecting enough evidence from frustrated and panicked veterans seeking their help. In this, veteran organizations remained true to their historical importance as intermediaries between the federal bureaucracy and individual veterans.
From their inception, these organizations have done more than just support veterans’ legislation and throw fish fries in local communities. Beginning in the 1920s, for example, both the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) created service arms to help World War I veterans navigate the newly created veterans’ bureaucracy. From the war’s end, these organizations loudly complained to Congress of the inadequacies of care for disabled veterans as they collected crucial information from local posts and state departments. They aided in promoting the creation of the Veterans Bureau’s in 1921 as a bureaucratic reform to help in the implementation of veterans’ hospitalization, pension, and rehabilitation services. When the Bureau was later transformed yet again into the Veterans’ Administration in 1930, the veterans’ organizations were at the fore. But, more important, after World War II and the passing of the 1944 GI Bill, a bill that both the Legion and VFW had a hand in getting passed, the veteran organizations continually held Congress and VA administrators’ feet to the fire to make sure that the legislation’s implementation went smoothly. They also continued to serve as intermediaries and guides for beleaguered veterans through the bureaucratic red tape. In short, the more expansive the entitlements given to veterans, the more individual veterans have come to lean on veterans’ organizations to carry on their battles with the bureaucracy. As we honor the men and women who have worn the uniform for the United States this Veterans’ Day, let’s remember the role veteran organizations have played in making sure they actually receive the benefits bestowed on them by a grateful country.