The Aug. 29, 2011, cover of TIME
Cover Credit: PHOTOGRAPH BY DANIELLE LEVITT FOR TIME
November 11, 2014

The United States has a long history of trying to look out for its veterans — in fact, that history is older than the country is. As TIME once noted, in discussing measures taken for World War II vets, the pilgrims at Plymouth wrote in 1636 that “If any man shalbee sent forth as a souldier and shall return maimed, hee shalbee maintained competently by the Collonie during his life.”

In the nearly four centuries that have passed since then, the relationship between America and those who have been sent forth as soldiers has changed — and so have the assumptions that society makes about who those people are. Say “veteran” now and the image the word conjures is very different from what it would have been in the 1930s, 1960s or 1980s. Over the years, TIME’s coverage of veterans’ issues has shed light on that evolution.

In honor of Veterans Day, here’s a look back at those ever-changing implications:

World War I

Many of the veterans of the Great War ended up enlisting in a second “army” shortly after returning home: the Bonus Army. The federal government had decided in the ’20s, when the victorious veterans were newly returned and the economy was rip-roaring, to grant those who had fought a bonus payment, payable about two decades later. Then the 1930s and the Great Depression happened. The men needed their bonuses right away, but the government wasn’t prepared to pay out. So, many of them organized into the “Bonus Expeditionary Force” and, in 1932, marched to Washington to demand payment. That August, the march turned into a riot, with a veteran named William Hushka shot by police and U.S. troops called in to assist in driving them out of town. “The unarmed B.E.F. did not give the troopers a real fight,” TIME reported. “They were too stunned and surprised that men wearing their old uniform should be turned against them.”

Read more: Battle of Washington, Aug. 8, 1932

World War II

The nation learned from the mistakes made after World War I and made sure the homecoming would go smoothly. The Veterans Administration had been fixed up, with Gen. Omar Bradley at the helm, and the G.I. Bill of Rights had been passed. To hear TIME tell it in 1946, veterans of the Second World War faced the opposite problem to the one that faced their predecessors: the veterans were so well taken care of that they felt lazy. “The country had promised to cushion the shock of their return and the country, for the most part, had made good. No soldier could deny that,” TIME wrote. “If anything, the cushion was too soft.”

Read more: Old Soldiers’ Soldier, Apr. 1, 1946

The Korean War

Coming close on the heels of WWII, the Korean War style of welcoming veterans home was mostly an extension of the process established in the 1940s. “By now, 15.3 million veterans of World War II, following by 4,500,000 from Korea, have gone back into civilian life with hardly a ripple,” TIME wrote in 1959. In fact, due to a combination of logistical preparedness for their return and a nation ready to embrace them, veterans tended to be further ahead than their civilian counterparts in terms of earnings and skills — and they were so well-adjusted that relatively few of them made use of the support structures that had been established.

Read more: What Ever Happened to the Veterans?, Jan. 5, 1959

The Vietnam War

It took nearly a decade after the end of the Vietnam War for TIME to wonder in a cover story what had happened to the parade for its veterans. “[After World War II] the mere uniform made a man a hero,” Lance Morrow wrote. “The troops who went to Korean got a muted version of the welcome. But then came America’s longest, strangest war. From that one, in Viet Nam, the boys came home alone, mostly one by one.” After newly returned Korean War vets had made their services seem extraneous, the V.A. had become seen as an institution concerned primarily with health care for aging vets of earlier wars; this traumatized younger cohort was left feeling like the nation just wanted to forget what had happened. The article introduced to TIME readers the phrase “posttraumatic stress”—it appeared in quotation marks—and underscored the importance of the psychological side of reentry to civilian life. It was as if the country had gone back to the post-WWI days, which was fitting, in some ways. “World War I was hard to beat as an example of dunderheaded, pointless slaughter,” Morrow wrote. “The men who fought it hated it just as much—and even in the same vocabularies—as the men who fought in Vietnam.”

Read more: The Forgotten Warriors, July 13, 1981

Iraq and Afghanistan

More recent writing about the veteran experience has held, in some ways, a mix of the past: respect is high but nobody thinks it’s easy. As TIME detailed in a 2011 cover story about veterans going into public service, it looks like that’s a good thing. “[Most] of the news we seem to hear about the veterans coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan is pretty bad,” wrote Joe Klein. “It is all about suicides, domestic violence and posttraumatic stress disorder. It is about veterans who are jobless and homeless. All of which is true, but there is another side of their story that has not been told: the veterans like John Gallina and Dale Beatty, who have come back and decided to continue to serve their country.”

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Read more: The New Greatest Generation, Aug. 29, 2011

Write to Lily Rothman at lily.rothman@time.com.

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