At the conclusion of World War I, U.S. veterans returned home to parades but little else.
There was no comprehensive medical care, disability compensation, vocational training, effective treatment for "shell shock" or brain injuries, or pensions for veterans' survivors.
And there was no national organization dedicated to helping war heroes.
Instead, these servicemen and women who defended the United States in the First World War were expected to return home and resume their lives as if nothing had happened. There was no support system in place to heal the physical and mental wounds from the poison gases, trench warfare and other elements of modern warfare in the early 20th century.
These brave soldiers, sailors and Marines answered the government's call. But the government was not prepared to return the favor.
Instead, a group of men and women who served in the Armed Forces took it upon themselves to forge The American Legion, a proud national organization dedicated to veterans, current servicemembers, their families, the youths of America and ordinary citizens. The American Legion was formally chartered by Congress in 1919, committed to four key pillars that still stand today: Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation, National Security, Americanism, and Children and Youth.
The Legion, conceived primarily by Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., embraced the mission to follow Lincoln's post-bellum call for America to "care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan." Working through a rapidly multiplying network of community posts, The American Legion became the nation's largest self-help organization. The Legion established tuberculosis hospitals, found employment for veterans, launched a program of monetary grants to assist widows and orphans, and assisted those suffering from the mental wounds of war.
It was this commitment to veterans that would soon lead The American Legion to a discovery that would shock the nation.
In 1923, The Legion conducted a nationwide survey to ascertain how World War I veterans were readjusting to civilian life.
The results were startling. Some veterans of the Great War were homeless, suffering from what we know today as PTSD; not a few were housed in jails, mental institutions and county homes. Too many had given up on life, had no hope and no future. It was not uncommon to see former "doughboys," without arms or legs, selling apples and pencils on the street corners of America, just trying to survive.
The public outcry was loud and clear. The result was the creation of the Veterans Administration, an entity that consolidated under one roof the services of many government agencies that had a small piece of the rehabilitation pie. Today, that agency has grown to become the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Federal and state laws were enacted, based on Legion advice gathered from thousands of its service officers working with veterans and their families, one on one, in the communities where they lived.
Those laws brought compensation for veterans who had suffered service-connected disabilities. They built a nationwide system of veterans hospitals and clinics and established veterans homes, veterans cemeteries, and pensions for the surviving spouses of those who had given their lives for our country.
Thanks in no small part to the diligence and vision of The American Legion, "shell shock" has been re-diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD); exposure to Agent Orange is now a recognized service-connected disability due to a study conducted by The American Legion and Columbia University; veterans suffering from mesothelioma, a cancer resulting from exposure to asbestos, and illness because of exposure to ionizing radiation and its resulting cancers, are both now recognized service-connected disabilities. The list is long and grows each year.
Most, if not all, of those conditions were called to the attention of our government, thanks to the Legion's work with veterans through its Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation Commission.
The American Legion's founders envisioned a future of honor, respect and prosperity for military veterans and the nation they vowed to protect and defend. That vision brought into existence the Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944, known as the GI Bill. The American Legion is recognized as the organization that wrote and created the bill, which ushered in monumental changes in U.S. society. Thanks to the GI bill, higher education became democratized after 8 million veterans went to school on their education benefits, obtained better jobs, bought houses in the suburbs and raised families.
The program's success is especially impressive, considering that the bill passed a House and Senate conference committee by only one vote, and yet has come to be known as one of the greatest pieces of social legislation ever conceived, triggering a half-century of American economic prosperity. For every dollar spent on educating World War II-era veterans, the U.S. economy eventually got $7 back.
The American Legion still believes in the vision of its founders, a vision for a strong America – freedom and opportunity. And The American Legion firmly believes that veterans and their families have earned every benefit awarded to them by a grateful nation because of their selfless service. Indeed, this basic principle was succinctly written into law when the Supreme Court stated in 1983:
"It is … not irrational for Congress to decide that, even though it will not subsidize substantial lobbying by charities generally, it will subsidize lobbying by veterans' organizations. Veterans have ‘been obliged to drop their own affairs and take up the burdens of the nation, subjecting themselves to the mental and physical hazards as well as the economic and family detriments which are peculiar to military service and which do not exist in normal civil life.' Our country has a long-standing policy of compensating veterans for their past contributions by providing them numerous advantages. This policy has ‘always been deemed to be legitimate.'"