The Alabama Department of Veterans Affairs (ADVA) administers programs to aid Alabama‘s military veterans and families and provides free assistance and advocacy for Alabama veterans seeking benefits from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). In its first year of existence in 1945, the ADVA assisted 251,789 veterans and their beneficiaries in obtaining services and benefits amounting to more than $43 million in federal funds. Since that time, the ADVA has continued assisting veterans with federal claims and services, and has expanded programs that are specific to Alabama veterans. Providing consistent service, the ADVA annually assists Alabama veterans with more than 20,000 compensation, pension, and medical claims with the VA.
State efforts to provide services to military veterans date from the Civil War era with the establishment of the Alabama Confederate Veterans Home in 1901. The first official agency charged with assisting veterans was the State Service Commission, established in 1927 by the Alabama legislature. This agency was created primarily to assist World War I veterans in claiming federal benefits and other services for which their military service made them eligible. From the outset, however, all surviving veterans from any war were eligible for assistance in gaining federal benefits. The Alabama Department of Veterans Affairs (ADVA) is an outgrowth of the Commission, created to meet the needs of an increasing number of military veterans.
With the expansion of federal benefits and thousands of veterans returning to Alabama from service during World War II, the American Legion Department of Alabama began advocating for a state department dedicated to veterans’ affairs. Through the efforts of the American Legion and other veterans’ organizations, the Alabama Legislature established the ADVA on June 23, 1945; it also created the State Board of Veterans Affairs at the same time to act as an oversight and administrative body for ADVA. The department began operations on October 1, 1945, and the board appointed then-commander of the American Legion Department of Alabama, Clarence C. Horton, as the first ADVA Commissioner, a post he held until 1962. In 1945, the state operated Veterans Affairs offices in all 67 counties in Alabama.
The ADVA functions under the direction of the State Board of Veterans Affairs as designated in the original 1945 law. Initially, the board consisted of representatives from the American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and the Spanish-American War Veterans. The board membership has expanded over the years and now includes 16 individuals who represent various veterans’ advocacy organizations, including the Disabled American Veterans, the Marine Corps League, and the Vietnam Veterans of America. It is formally chaired by the governor and has two vice chairs. Routine administration of the Board is conducted under the auspices of the vice-chairmen.
The ADVA is headquartered in Montgomery, Montgomery County, and employs approximately 100 people throughout the state. The administrative staff consists of the commissioner and other staff who supervise nine divisions that oversee ADVA programs and services. Veterans interact primarily with the Claims Division, Education Division, and the Cemetery Division. The state is organized into northern, central, and southern regions, with county offices in 50 of Alabama’s 67 counties. Within each county office, Veterans Service Officers—all veterans themselves—directly assist veterans with claims, benefits, and other services. In addition, the federal VA operates four medical centers, a benefits office, numerous outpatient clinics, and other facilities in the state.
The ADVA is funded primarily through the State General Fund, the Education Trust Fund, the Alabama Veterans Assistance Fund, and the Alabama Veterans’ Home Trust Fund. Additional sources of funding include federal grants for veterans’ homes and cemeteries and private donations. In 1945, the department was originally provided $350,000 for annual operations and today has an operating budget of more than $100 million. Established by the state legislature in 1951, the Alabama G.I. and Dependents Educational Benefits program currently funds full tuition and fees for more than 15,000 college and technical students each year. For eligible veterans and their dependents, this funding may cover the cost of college up to a four-year undergraduate degree. Additionally, in the 2010s, the ADVA assisted Alabama veterans receive more than $3 billion in federal compensation.
The department also spent $29 million for the operation for veterans’ homes in the state. In the past two decades, Alabama has built, with federal assistance, four fully certified nursing homes to support veterans in need of specialized nursing care. Each of the state veterans’ homes, including one named for U.S. representative and veteran William Flynt Nichols, has been recognized for their outstanding quality, and several have undergone significant expansion and upgrades to better serve aging and combat-wounded veterans.
In the 2010s, the ADVA embarked on several new programs and initiatives. In 2011, it established the Alabama Veterans Treatment Court Task Force and county-based “treatment courts.” These courts provide addiction recovery services to Alabama veterans involved with the justice system on drug and alcohol abuse charges. To date, there are more than 20 courts providing assistance to veterans. The Task Force was also recognized by the VA for excellence in serving veterans. In 2012, the ADVA, with assistance from federal VA grants, built the Alabama State Memorial Veterans Cemetery at Spanish Fort, Baldwin County. The cemetery has more than 2,700 burial sites on 120 acres. Spouses of veterans and children may also be eligible for burial at the cemetery. Two years later, the ADVA established a Homeless Veterans Program to assist homeless and at-risk veterans and their families in gaining the resources to help ensure adequate housing.
The ADVA has experienced budget cuts from the General Fund in recent years, causing reductions in services. In 2012, the ADVA had to close 17 of the 67 county offices and consolidate their services into the remaining 50. Several of the remaining Veterans Service Officers divide their time between county offices during the week. Some offices provide direct services as little as one day a week. While full services remain available on open days, the distance veterans may be required to travel has increased greatly since 1945, when it was estimated that no matter where a veteran lived in Alabama they would be no further than 15 miles from the nearest ADVA office.
The ADVA also faces the continued challenge of educating veterans and their families about the benefits and services for which they may be eligible. With the move toward electronic filing of claims at the federal level, many veterans attempt, unsuccessfully, to apply for benefits and often are not aware of the free assistance available to help navigate the complex federal VA system. The ADVA provides newsletters and news releases to veterans, and Service Officers also speak at local civic events to raise awareness of ADVA services.
The quality of and access to veteran health care in Alabama has been an ongoing problem within the federal VA and has caused frustration among veterans and the ADVA. Although VA benefits and its healthcare system do not fall under the ADVA for operation, the department continues to advocate for improvements in the services that have been promised to more than 400,000 Alabama veterans as part of their military service.