Legacy of help: Dayton's VA Medical Center

Legacy of help: Dayton's VA Medical Center

An old black and white picture of the hospital ward.

The hospital ward at the Dayton VA Medical Center in Dayton opened in 1870, to treat Civil War veterans. (Photo courtesy of the Dayton VA Center.)

Yellow Springs resident Dave Neuhardt was surprised to find that his love of history would lead him to the grave marker of his great-great grandfather, who fought for the Union during the Civil War.

Among those in the National Cemetery on the grounds of the Dayton VA Medical Center are the remains of Howard Bates, who served Ohio infantry and cavalry regiments. Why he is buried there is part of the historic narrative attached to the place.

The center, which today has 356 beds, claims 150 years of history. In its early years, it demonstrated such a progressive approach toward veterans’ care that it became a model the federal government used to build a network of similar homes that evolved into the U.S. Veterans Administration in 1930.

Neuhardt says few are aware of its significance. He learned of it as a member of the American Veterans Heritage Center, a local preservation group. “I knew a little about it, but now I know a lot more,” he says.

He tracked his ancestor through a genealogy website, which is how he discovered the VA cemetery marker. Bates spent eight years in the home, where he died in 1901.

So how did the Dayton VA come to be? Toward the end of the war, Union leaders knew there would be a flood of disabled Union Army veterans without enough charities or hospitals to serve them — and indeed, 83 percent of the 204 hospitals open at the war’s end closed within eight months. In March 1865, a month before his assassination, President Lincoln created the National Military Asylum for the Relief of the Totally Disabled Officers and Men of the Volunteer Force, which became the country’s first foray into large-scale care of its veterans.

The Central Branch at Dayton was the largest among the first three opened and at its peak accommodated some 7,000 veterans. The first residents — described as “homeless, penniless, and almost friendless” — sought admission to the site overlooking the lush Miami Valley.

By this time, the name was shortened to National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers, but it became known colloquially as the National Soldiers’ Home. Of the original branches, Dayton was the most progressive because of its focus on rehabilitation and training veterans in a trade — more than 100 were offered — so they could re-acclimate to civilian life. A hospital opened in 1870.

Tessa Kalman, visiual information specialist at the Dayton VA, says the center’s relevance has never waned. “The enduring legacy of the National Homes, and now the many VA medical centers across the country, is to remind us how we as a nation still believe that to care for those who have ‘borne the battle’ is as important today as it was in the time of President Lincoln,” she says.

Craig Lovelace is a freelance writer from Groveport.