Dead Men Collect No Pensions: The Debt to Our Warriors, Part I

Steve Russell

Traditionally, we Indians honor warriors. We honor not only our own warriors but also our adversaries when they act with honor as well as courage.

The dominant culture has a mixed record in looking after warriors when the war is over. Trying to put warriors back in the position they would have occupied had they not gone to war is not awarding them an honor. It’s a partial payment of our debt to them.

The United States got off to a bad start when pay of Revolutionary War soldiers was suspended during the war, in 1777, because the value of the “Continental” dollar was declining so rapidly as to make the currency near worthless anyway.

After independence was won in 1783, paying its soldiers quickly fell off the agenda of the new nation.

Revolutionary War officers formed an officers-only lobby called the Order of Cincinnati to get what they had been promised—half pay for life if they served for the duration.  When it became clear the money was not there, George Washington brokered a compromise, a bond worth five years pay at maturity.  Most officers sold their bonds at deep discounts and ordinary soldiers got nothing.

Congress finally funded pensions for indigent Revolutionary War veterans in 1818 and extended them to all surviving veterans in 1832 so the average age of the few surviving vets was 67. After waiting almost 50 years for what was owed them, most died within five years. Note that life expectancy at birth for those who served in the American Revolution was 36 years. The official history of the Department of Veterans Affairs relates that only 3,000 Revolutionary War soldiers drew any pension “at most” out of about 200,000 men and two women we know of who saw combat.

This tradition of delayed compensation for veterans continued in WWI, after which vets got a bonus certificate redeemable in 1945. The Great Depression intervened and most veterans found themselves unemployed. They began demanding early redemption of their bonus certificates and some 43,000 demonstrators, calling themselves the Bonus Army, came to Washington and vowed to stay—camping in public places—until the bonuses were paid.

On the orders of President Herbert Hoover, General Douglas MacArthur, supported by six battle tanks commanded by then-Major George S. Patton, attacked the Bonus Army and burned their encampments. Hoover got public blame and suffered retribution at the polls that same year, 1932.

Newly elected President Franklin D. Roosevelt, faced with a smaller Bonus Army making the same demands, sent his wife Eleanor into the veterans’ camp alone. As a result of her negotiations, FDR issued an executive order waiving the enlistment requirements for WWI veterans so they could get immediate work with the Civilian Conservation Corps. Congress finally paid the bonuses – over FDR’s veto – in 1936.

President Hoover did leave one legacy for veterans when he proposed in his 1929 State of the Union to consolidate all veteran’s programs that had been spread across three bureaus into one agency. On July 21, 1930, Hoover signed an executive order creating the Veterans Administration.

The suffering of World War I veterans helped assure that World War II veterans would become the first generation to be offered prompt and comprehensive benefits. This was the first GI Bill of Rights, covering medical care, education, home ownership and even temporary support while seeking employment.

The GI Bill, especially in breaking down historical barriers to higher education, changed the United States forever. The new commitment to veterans became law in 1944, but it was not until 1959 that the VA would adopt a motto that described a standard of conduct veterans would have a right to demand. The VA motto came from one of the finest speeches ever given by a President, Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural:

“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

Part 2 will examine how the VA has and has not lived up to the terms of the promise in its motto.

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