Q. What is the origin of veterans organizations with respect to disability or welfare? Were there any organizations set up as early as post-Civil War or War of 1812? We are now being solicited for support of Wounded Warrior Project, but I have been a longtime supporter of the Disabled American Veterans (DAV). It seems like they duplicate themselves and may actually reduce support for the DAV, which has been around since 1921. How can we choose the most worthy association to support?
— R.J., of O’Fallon
A. I often wonder the same thing — and not just with veterans. If, for example, you check www.charitynavigator.org, a nonprofit organization that evaluates charities, for “cancer,” you’ll find more than 250 organizations, from the American Cancer Society and Susan G. Komen for the Cure to Breastcancer.org and 24 Hours of Booty (which is rated at three out of four stars, by the way).
It would seem logical that far more money could go to research and patients if you could send all donations to one group instead of having dozens and dozens of organizational bureaucracies, competing pleas for help, etc. But, of course, the argument is that the task is simply too herculean for one group. Arguments would erupt over which cancers to fund and which research to back. Worthy families and scientists might be overlooked. Hence, the plethora organizations we see today to try to satisfy everyone.
Soldiers have been waging a similar battle for help from the earliest days of the nation. If you remember your history, you’ll remember that as early as March 1783, soldiers from the Continental Army were growing increasingly frustrated because Congress had failed to honor its promise to pay them. George Washington eventually defused a potential revolt and established the concept of civilian control over the military in the process. Soldiers eventually would receive five years pay, but not before they protested en masse in Philadelphia three months later, forcing Congress to flee to Princeton, N.J.
But times were far different back then, of course. You couldn’t hire a public relations firm to send out mass mailings or swamp the airwaves with requests for aid. Most people likely were just trying to establish their own foothold in a new nation without the extra burden of starting some social organization or sending hard-earned dollars off to a charity even if one had existed.
But after the Civil War, battle-scarred vets began seeing the wisdom of forming permanent bands of brother to further their cause. Numerous associations began to form, according to the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies at Virginia Tech. Some consisted simply of all men living in a single town or county while others were formed by survivors of specific armies, regiments or even POWs. Two dominated — the Grand Army of the Republic and the United Confederate Veterans.
Formed in 1866 in Decatur, the GAR’s motto was “Fraternity (meetings and annual encampments), Charity (fund-raisers to help soldiers who had fallen on hard times) and Loyalty” (although nonpartisan, it was closely allied with Abraham Lincoln’s Republican Party). By the late 1860s, GAR members were celebrating May 30 as Memorial Day with parades and speeches. By 1890, the GAR boasted nearly 500,000 members. In the South, the Confederate Veterans would grow to 160,000 by 1990.
Federal pensions of a few dollars to $30 a month were awarded to Union veterans who were unable to work after the war. In addition, Lincoln on March 3, 1865, signed a law establishing the National Asylum for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers to provide care for those who had become disabled because of wounds, disease or other injury suffered during the war. It would eventually open more than a dozen homes that would be converted into the current Veterans Administration in 1930.
But as new wars continued to erupt, new organizations formed to meet the demand for services. In the late 19th century, veterans of the Spanish-American War (1898) and the Philippine Insurrection (1899-1902) were coming home wounded or sick. There was no medical care or veterans pension for them, so some banded together to form the American Veterans of Foreign Service (Columbus, Ohio) and the National Society of the Army of the Philippines (Denver). In 1914, they would merge to become the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
As you know, that was just the start. From March 15-17, 1919, members of the American Expeditionary Force met in Paris to discuss a service organization for World War I vets; two months later in St. Louis they named it the American Legion. After World War I, tens of thousands had returned blind, deaf, horribly wounded or mentally ill, which gave rise to your Disabled American Veterans on Sept. 25, 1921. World War II, Korea, Vietnam and the Gulf conflicts would bring countless more as easy methods to appeal to mass audiences grew. Now if you search for “veterans” at www.charitynavigator.org, you’ll be bombarded with a list of 80 rated organizations and 100 unrated. They range from the familiar USO, Fisher House Foundation and Honor Flight Network to Cell Phones for Soldiers and the Coalition to Salute America’s Heroes.
So how do you go about choosing the worthiest charities? The best advice I can offer is to go to a site like www.charitynavigator.org and study the information. For each charity, it lists a slew of statistics from the percentage of its budget that it spends on programs and services to how much it spends on fundraising. It also offers a rating of zero to four stars. For example the Navy SEAL Foundation gets four stars (and a score of 96.99 out of 100), partly because it spends nearly 86 cents of every dollar on services as opposed to 10 cents on administrative expenses and 2 cents on fundraising. By comparison, the Blinded Veterans Association, which gets no stars and a score of 29.28, spends only 25 cents of every dollar on services, 22 cents on administrative expenses and a whopping 52 cents on fundraising. I’m not swearing their methodology is perfect and some of its ratings may surprise you, but at least you can compare apples to apples. Because of space limitations, I apologize for not singling out every worthy veterans organization.
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Answer to Saturday’s trivia: Now 65, Oscar-winning actor Jeff Bridges could not have gotten his start in Hollywood much earlier. If you watch carefully, you can see 6-month-old Jeff being held by his actress-mother, Dorothy Bridges in a train-station scene during the 1951 movie “The Company She Keeps.” His 8-year-old brother, Beau, can be seen standing nearby. According to a 2013 podcast, Jeff said he was supposed to cry at one point in the movie, so his mother suggested pinching him.
Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427, email@example.com or call 618-239-2465.