The Veterans Health Administration (VHA) celebrates its 75th Anniversary which dates to the creation of the Department of Medicine and Surgery which was started on August 15, 1945 by VA Administrator General Omar Bradley. The delivery of exceptional health care to Veterans has been a hallmark of the VHA. VHA has been at the forefront of medicine. However, delivery of healthcare to Veterans, including Social Work Services, predates the creation of VHA.
In 1811, the first domiciliary and medical facility for Veterans was authorized by the Federal Government. In 1812, the Naval Home was established in Philadelphia to provide medical care for disabled Veterans. During the Civil War, organizations, such as the U.S. Sanitary Commission and U.S. Christian Commission, provided vital services and moral support to benefit military medical activities and discharged soldiers. The social research and advocacy of the U.S. Sanitary Commission led to the founding of a national soldiers and sailors’ asylum and was the origin of today’s Veterans Health Administration. Clara Barton, a nurse with the U.S. Sanitary Commission, founded the American Red Cross after the war in 1881.
After the Civil War, many State Veterans Homes were established with domiciliary care with limited medical and hospital treatment being provided. In 1865, in the second inaugural address of President Lincoln, he called upon Congress “to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan”. This phrase has been adopted as the VA’s motto. From 1866 until World War I, all forms of Social Work were practiced at the National Homes, however, it was not called “Social Work” at the time. No formal “Social Work” training or program yet existed. In 1853, a Soldier’s Home was established in Washington, DC. Starting in 1882, all Veterans with mental health issues were sent to the Government Insane Asylum, later known as St. Elizabeth’s in the District of Columbia. In 1918, after WWI, psychiatric hospitals became a new type of Veteran’s medical facility. In 1919, the American Red Cross, was asked to organize social services for treating mental diseases in Veterans’ hospitals. By 1920, 42 Veterans’ hospitals had developed these services. By the late 1920’s, medical care at the Soldiers Homes had risen to the hospital level.
In 1926, the Veteran’s Bureau established the Social Work program and took over the operation of social services from the Red Cross. The Program was directed by Irene Grant Dalyrmple from 1926 to 1946. Over 15 of the first psychiatric Social Workers were graduates of the first class of graduates from Smith College and their program with an emphasis on psychiatric Social Work.
By executive order, President Hoover, on July 30, 1930, established the Veteran’s Bureau. This new agency was responsible for medical services, as well as compensation, for war Veterans. From 1931 to 1941, the number of VA hospitals increased from 64 to 91. In 1946, there were 97 hospitals and plans to construct 25 more hospitals.
In 1946, Omar Bradley contacted Major General Paul Hawley to develop a resident and teaching fellowship program with VA Hospitals. Hines Hospital in Chicago was the first VA facility to affiliate with a medical school (Northwestern and the University of Illinois). Affiliation with academic institutions has become a hallmark of VHA. VHA, now has a large public-private partnership and has become a cornerstone of American healthcare professionals training. The VHA trains over 125,000 U.S. health professionals annually in 40 different disciplines.
The DVA is now affiliated with over 180 Graduate Schools of Social Work and operates the largest and most comprehensive clinical training program for Social Work students with over 900 students per year.
At the time of the establishment of the VHA as the Department of Medicine and Surgery, there were approximately 550 Social Workers in 1946, and this has grown to over 16,000 Social Workers in 2021.
Social Work as a partner in the delivery of care within the VHA family has continued to expand the role historically of both medical and psychiatric social work as well as Social Work in general in the United States. Standards of care have been established as a role model for service delivery. The DVA today is the largest employer of Social Work graduates in the United States and provides crucial services to veterans and their families.
Social Work celebrates having been a part of the VHA family for over 75 years providing services to the women and men who have made sacrifices to provide for our liberty here in the United States.