By: Sam Zeff and Matt Hodapp
We start this episode of Archiver in 1918, the end of the first World War, because the way America treated those veterans would forever change the way the country takes care of its soldiers, sailors and marines. Make no mistake, it would take decades plus lots of pain and suffering to do the right thing, but it happened. And wouldn’t you know it, it took a Kansan to get it done.
The man who vastly improved the way America treats its veterans is Harry Colmery, a distinguished looking fellow who studied law at the University of Pittsburgh in his native Pennsylvania. His law career was interrupted by World War I were he served in the Army Air Service as an instructor and a pursuit pilot.
After the war, Colmary settled in Topeka to practice with John S. Dean, a politically connected lawyer who was active in Republican politics and a progressive. Dean, and how odd is this Archiver fans, was also part of the legal team that helped strip goat gland doctor John R. Brinkley of his medical license in 1936.
But back to Colmary. He was lucky. He had a profession and a job after the war. This wasn’t the case for millions of veterans who fought in trenches in France and Belgium. The government promised them future bonuses, but the Great Depression made the vets desperate for the money right away.
In 1932 the the so-called “Bonus Army” descended on Washington and camped in the city. On July 28th, it boiled over. The bonus army was attacked by 200 cavalry troops with sabers drawn and 400 infantrymen with bayonets fixed. The troops were lead by none other than Gen. Douglas McArthur.
For Harry Colmary back in Topeka, this was too much to take. In between wars he had already worked to change regulations so service members could be treated at Veterans Hospitals for non-service related problems. Then World War II started, and millions more men and women would join the military. This time, though, Harry Colmery was going to make sure veterans would come home to what we now would call a safety net.
Colmery designed and congress passed the Serviceman’s Readjustment Act of 1944. We know it as the GI Bill of Rights.
The Roosevelt Administration was worried that America would plunge right back into a depression when the war ended. That’s why FDR and congress passed the GI Bill. It offered education benefits, no downpayment home loans and unemployment insurance.
The number of students at the University of Kansas and Kansas State almost doubled after the war. The suburbs grew as veterans bought houses. But the GI Bill of Rights was not without its failures.
Because home loans were left to local officials, in the south black vets were often denied mortgages. Because many universities were segregated, in 1946 only 20 percent of blacks who applied for educational benefits actually enrolled in college. But the GI Bill would endure and be there for veterans of every war since.
Future wars would introduce us to Agent Orange, PTSD, trauma caused by IEDs. And how America cares for its veterans hasn’t gotten any less controversial.
There’s been scandals at Veterans Administration hospitals, there’s some unscrupulous for-profit colleges that prey on veteran education benefits and it’s impossible to have a national political campaign without hearing about how America must do a better job taking care of vets.
But here’s the thing; 75 years ago we couldn’t even have the debates or the fights because a veteran safety net simply didn’t exist. It didn’t exist until Harry Colmery put pen to paper in 1944. And then, he kind of vanished.
The VA put his name on its hospital in Topeka but that was it. Until last summer. That’s when some American Legion members in Topeka raised 400-thousand dollars to build a Colmery statute at Ninth and Kansas Avenue in downtown. It’s Colmery saluting, backed by a relief of service members.
The ceremony was captured on video by the American Legion and featured national commander Dale Barnett who said Colmery now gives all veterans at least a chance at a home, health care and an education.