|For an organization to remain progressive, it must continually change with the
times. It must constantly assess the needs and problems of its members and adjust its
goals to address those problems. In the first fifteen years after the VFW's founding, its
members did not lack for goals. But as yet, its members did not have the experience or
knowledge that would enable them to successfully achieve all their goals.
During this period, the VFW's goals focused primarily on the needs of two
important groups - present-day veterans and their families, and servicemen who would be
the nation's future veterans. For the benefit of the first group, the VFW advocated for
veterans' entitlements such as job preference, vocational rehabilitation and training,
pensions for disabled veterans and families of deceased veterans, and medical care for
veterans with service-connected disabilities. For the benefit of the second group, the VFW
worked for reforms in military preparedness to ensure that our armed forces would never
again be sent into combat as poorly trained and equipped as were the troops of the Spanish
American War. No organization had ever before dared to challenge the government's stance
on recruiting, training, and equipping its servicemen. And although the VFW's early cries
on the subject of preparedness were largely ignored, the VFW never relinquished its goal.
Eventually the VFW would make up for what it lacked in experience with stamina and
determination. During these learning years, many of the victories the VFW won were small.
Many of its attempts to secure what it deemed fair treatment for the nation's veterans
failed. Yet in each attempt, there was a victory. The victory was learning that the VFW
could influence legislation on behalf of its veterans.
Thomas Crago, United States Congressman from Pennsylvania, was elected
VFW Commander-in-Chief in 1914, and was responsible for what is recognized as the greatest
VFW victory of that time; the pension bill which provided for the widows of Spanish War
Veterans, which he authored and defended on the floor of the House. Through Crago and
others like him, the organization learned how and when to apply its influence to gain the
legislation necessary to accomplish its goals. In the near future, these hard-learned
lessons would serve well both the VFW and a much larger group of veterans.
In 1915, the nation's need to prepare for war was palpable to the VFW.
True, President Woodrow Wilson had vowed to keep the United States out of war, but all
over the world, events appeared to be drawing the United States inexorable closer to war.
As if the members of the VFW needed any further evidence that a war was on the horizon,
President Wilson issued a call for men to serve on the Mexican border. Because many VFW
members responded, quite a few familiar faces were missing from the National Encampment in
1915. From the moment the National Encampment was gaveled to order in Detroit on August
16, much of the talk centered on the need for preparedness. According to the Detroit News
Tribune, one of the first practical suggestions was offered by W.S. Voorsanger, a member
from Pittsburgh. Voorsanger proposed a plan to create an "adequate veteran
reserve" by "securing the enlistment in such reserve of several hundred thousand
veterans of the campaigns of the last two decades." Although this suggestion was
never adopted on a national level, many departments supplied their states with men who
performed some of the duties a reserve corps might have provided. These men patrolled sea
coasts and national boundaries and investigated and reported suspected subversive groups
On April 6, 1917, at President Wilson's urging, Congress declared war
on Germany. Over the next eighteen months, the VFW would prove many times over that it had
meant what it said when it promised President Wilson "the united support of the
members of this organization, in any crisis that may arise." America's declaration of
war galvanized the VFW into action. More than 60 percent of its members decided to make
the supreme contribution to their country's war efforts by going back into uniform. Those
still at home channeled their efforts into four main areas: helping to win the war,
fighting for entitlements for the veterans-to-be, advocating for the needs of servicemen's
families, and recruiting new members. Perhaps the VFW's most valuable assistance toward
winning the war was in recruiting.
Besides helping to register men for the draft, VFW posts helped with
recruitment in other ways. Putting into action an idea first proposed at the 1915 National
Encampment, the posts in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, organized a Veteran Reserve Corps
to take over when the National Guard of that state was ordered overseas. To keep up the
morale of the servicemen they had helped to recruit, many posts inaugurated a special
"Vets to Vets" letter program. Through this program, posts tried to target men
from their hometown who didn't receive mail from home. One last "direct support"
service the VFW offered the armed forces during the war was to help the military overcome
its shortcomings in equipment. Despite the VFW's continuous pleading with the federal
government in past years for the maintenance of an up-to-date and well-equipped military
organization, its advice had mostly fallen on deaf ears. As a result, the armed forces
were thrust into another war almost as ill equipped as they had been during the Spanish
American War. In 1917, the entire VFW National Encampment got into the act of raising
money for much-needed equipment. The delegates and others attending the meetings sold
pencils on the streets of New York City - the host city - in one of the nation's earliest
street-sales fund-raisers. With the proceeds, the VFW purchased two ambulances for
donation to the U.S. Army.
At the same time the members of the VFW were throwing themselves into
the war effort, they were also looking ahead to the day when the troops now fighting the
"War to End War" would be veterans. The veterans of 1898 knew from personal
experience of the "war's over" apathy of the public; they knew they could not
wait until the boys came home to secure for them the entitlements they had earned. Armed
with this knowledge, they constantly reminded the government and politicians of their
promises. On a national level, the VFW worked to secure some form of insurance against
disability or loss of life for service members. On September 2, 1915, Congress had
approved an act which covered losses or damage suffered by our Merchant Marine or
commercial companies due to actions of warring European nations. This War Risk Insurance
Act, however, did not extend to members of the armed forces or to naval ships and their
cargo. Finally, after years of prodding from the VFW, the government expanded the act's
coverage. Shortly after war was declared, Congress approved the new War Insurance Act, and
in October 1917, an addition to it in the form of medical insurance for servicemen. This
new system was pronounced by its originators to be "modern, scientific, complete and
free from all deficits of the old Pension System." Unfortunately, the act's
provisions were not handled expediently or efficiently. As a result, the act was amended
eight times, then finally repealed in 1924.
If the War Insurance Act was ultimately disappointing, another
entitlement the VFW succeeded in winning was not. The enactment of Public Law 178 in 1918
marked the achievement of a major VFW objective. With this act, the federal government
finally conceded the need for vocational training for disabled veterans who required
special training for complete rehabilitation. Before this time, the returning disabled
veteran had been discharged and made to fend for himself. Even if his previous employment
had been as a stevedore or steeplejack, as far as the government was concerned, the loss
of one or both legs was not a problem. Under Public Law 178, he would be trained at
special centers to qualify for employment where his loss would present less of an
obstacle. He would be reeducated to cope in a different environment and receive financial
assistance for himself and his dependents.
In June 1920, the VFW was finally awarded the Widows and Orphans
Pension Bill which gave widows of veterans of the Spanish American War and the Philippine
Insurrection $`12 a month plus an additional $2 for each child.
While the VFW was working on behalf of veterans' families, many of
these families were themselves taking an active role in veterans' affairs. At the
organizational meeting in 1914, he VFW had approved the formation of a national Ladies
From the start of World War I, the VFW left no doubt that it seriously
intended to become an organization for veterans of all wars, not just veterans of the
Spanish American War. It worked to secure entitlements for all veterans, to obtain
pensions for all veterans' families, and - most important to its future survival - to
recruit veterans from all wars as members.
One of the committees established to handle claims against the War Risk
Insurance Act and Vocational Training Bureau evolved into a permanent Washington office
known as the National Service Bureau. With the establishment of this bureau, the VFW
became the first veteran's organization to maintain a permanent office in the nation's
As another result of its tremendous growth in membership, the VFW found
it necessary to establish a level of leadership and authority midway between the national
and local levels. At the 1920 Encampment in Washington, D.D., the delegates adopted a new
set of bylaws that provided that all posts within each state be organized into a
department. This department would be headed by a state commander elected by a delegate
from those posts. The new arrangement would improve communication between the posts in
each state and enable posts within a state to use their clout jointly when necessary.
From its inception, the VFW had taken it for granted that veterans
should, by law, be entitled to certain benefits. But the federal government did not
officially acknowledge this self-evident truth until the 1920's. In that decade, the
government took several actions that signaled it was finally ready to take veterans'
entitlements seriously. First on August 9, 1921, the government transferred administration
of veterans' entitlements from the Treasury Department to a separate Veterans Bureau. This
move, made after several years of pleading from the VFW, meant that for the first time
there were government officials whose job was to focus full time on veterans' problems.
The second way the federal government officially recognized the needs
of veterans was by forming Veterans Affairs Committees in both the House of
Representatives and the Senate.