Serving & Honoring America’s Veterans

October 18, 2013 by MPA@UNC Staff

What Is the Department of Veterans Affairs?

The US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is largely responsible for caring for the needs of military veterans and providing them with benefits, resources, and other support systems. This department is the second largest of the executive departments.


The VA is one of the newer members of the cabinet, though its services date back to the Revolutionary War. In 1776, the Continental Congress encouraged individuals to join the fight by promising pensions when the war was over. States and communities also provided medical and hospital care to soldiers. In 1834, the first veteran-specific medical facility was opened.

By the 19th century, the assistance program for veterans was expanded. Many states began building homes for veterans after the Civil War. World War I brought more changes to veterans’ benefits. These changes were administered by three agencies: the Veterans Bureau, the Bureau of Pensions of the Interior Department, and the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers. The Department of Veterans Affairs was officially established in 1930.

World War II brought about the biggest changes to the VA, particularly through the World War II GI Bill. This triggered major changes to veterans’ benefits in the following decades. After the Korean and Vietnam wars, educational benefits were added to the already long list of medical benefits. In 1989, the department was granted cabinet status under a law signed by President Ronald Reagan. The head of this agency is 17th in line for presidential succession.

Organizational Responsibilities

The VA is responsible for making sure America’s veterans and their families are taken care of after their military service is complete. They specifically focus on retired veterans and survivors of military service members who were killed in active duty.

About three out of every four veterans have served during a time of war or conflict. Through a variety of programs for which approximately 70 million Americans are eligible, the VA offers health care, life insurance benefits, burial benefits, educational assistance, and more to allow veterans and their families to improve their lives and transition more seamlessly into the civilian world.

The department is currently led by former General Eric Ken Shinseki, who was appointed to the position in January 2009. This position is filled by presidential appointment with Senate approval, and is typically held by a retired military leader.

The VA is divided into three main agencies:

National Cemetery Administration
Veterans Benefits Administration
Veterans Health Administration

Budget and Size

The amount of money allocated to the VA has steadily increased each year. In 1940, the department budget was approximately $561 million. This has increased to more than $152 billion for fiscal year 2014, which is due to the growing number of individuals who have served in the military, particularly during World War II, the Vietnam War, and the recent wars in the Middle East. As these military service members retire or do not renew their contracts, the demands on the VA increase.

The VA employs more than 235,000 individuals. Many of these employees work in the main offices in Washington, D.C. Each state operates their own VA departments, which require additional employees to fill these positions as well. Individuals are also needed to work in the medical facilities run by the VA.

VA careers typically consist of administrative jobs to assist in the implementation and distribution of program benefits to veterans across the country. Many of the administrative jobs available include positions in human resources and information technology within the main offices. Some of these positions may require a bachelor’s or master’s degree in a related field. However, a majority of the career options within the VA are medically related. Some of these jobs include:

Social workers
Psychologists and psychiatrists

While anyone who holds an appropriate degree with relevant experience may qualify for these jobs, the VA strives to hire veterans in many of these positions in an effort to provide them with gainful employment after their military service.

Current Issues

The VA has been in the news in recent years for a variety of issues including:

Experiencing serious backlog in providing benefits to eligible veterans
Providing support to veterans who have been negatively affected by the Defense of Marriage Act
Evaluating benefits and tailoring them to best meet veterans’ needs