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The history of veterans' benefits is a long and winding road

Patriot's Day, or April 18, is only celebrated in Massachusetts. The Commonwealth closes its offices to commemorate the midnight ride of Paul Revere, when the intrepid silversmith rode from Boston into the countryside to raise the alarm so that the militia would be ready for the advancing British army.

Most people just know this part of the story and maybe some tidbits about the revolutionary battles and skirmishes that ultimately led to the surrender of the British at Yorktown in 1783. They seldom have information about the men who fought in those battles. What, for example, did the grateful young nation - the United States - do for its revolutionary veterans? The facts may be surprising.

Colonies and then states had a variety of veterans programs, and the Continental Congress authorized pensions as a recruiting tool in 1776. However, it turned out the fledgling nation did not have the cash to actually make payments to disabled veterans as promised. The first comprehensive federal Pension Act was only passed in 1818 - 35 years after the end of the Revolutionary War. The first federal home (domiciliary) and hospital for veterans was authorized by Congress in 1811, but did not open in Philadelphia until 1834. Most medical treatment for disabled veterans until well after the Civil War was provided by the states, not the federal government. Some states did not provide benefits at al.

A patchwork system of veterans benefits continued until the United States entered World War I. In 1917, the United States established programs for disability benefits and vocational rehabilitation. However, these and other veterans' benefits programs were administered by three separate agencies, continuing the scattershot approach that prevailed before WWI.

The Veterans Administration was finally established in 1930, incorporating the three agencies that formerly provided benefits - the Veterans Bureau, the Bureau of Pensions of the Interior Department, and the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers.

The consolidated agency - referred to as the VA by millions of veterans worldwide - has had an enormous effect both on veterans' lives and on the culture of the U.S. However, in some ways obtaining benefits is almost as difficult today as it was in the aftermath of the Revolution. The bureaucracy is a maddening puzzle even to the most determined veterans, and many wait months or years for disability benefits. As a result, advocates such as The Rep for VetsTM have sprung up to help veterans navigate the system and obtain the payments to which they are entitled.

Source: Department of Veterans Affairs, "VA History," April 5, 2012.

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