On Springs Road lies the sprawling Edith Nourse Rogers Memorial Veterans Hospital, locally known as “the Bedford VA.” What is the story behind it? How did it end up in Bedford? And who is it named after? A recent report suggests there may be changes in the future to the facility. We will have more on that in the coming weeks. Before figuring out what the future may hold, we thought it would be a good idea to first explain the Bedford VA’s history.
The modern-day Department of Veterans Affairs traces its roots back to the Civil War. The first federal facility was called the National Asylum for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers, which was established to take care of volunteer soldiers and sailors of the Union Army. Before the Civil War, individual states had taken care of each their respective veterans in various soldiers’ homes.
A month before the Civil War ended, President Lincoln signed a law establishing the National Soldiers and Sailors Asylum. Renamed the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers in 1873, it was the first government institution in the world created specifically for honorably discharged volunteer soldiers.
In 1917 when the U.S. entered World War I, Congress established a list of new benefits for World War I veterans. Medical care shifted away from lifelong residential care to short-term treatment in general or specialized hospitals and was supplemented by job re-training or disability pensions.
In 1945 General Omar Bradley was put in charge of the VA, and he transformed it into a modern organization.
In 1988 the Veterans Administration changed its name to the Department of Veterans Affairs. Under President Reagan, the VA became a cabinet-level department.
Where the VA health care system comprised 54 hospitals in 1930, today it has grown to 150 hospitals, 800 community-based outpatient clinics, 126 nursing home care units, and 35 domiciliaries.
How did the VA land in Bedford?
After World War I the VA shifted its focus away from the soldiers’ homes model to hospitals and began building hospitals across the country. Greater Boston was slated to have a hospital and a federal board was created to search for a new site for a neuropsychiatric hospital.
Looking for a serene setting, that federal board settled on the 276-acre site in Bedford on Springs Road. In 1927 work started on the Bedford Veterans Hospital. In July of 1928, the Bedford hospital started to receive patients from other facilities. Some of the first patients who arrived in Bedford were veterans of the Civil War and the Spanish American War, as well as World War I. Over the next 20 years, the demand for veterans’ services quickly outpaced the capacity. The hospital continued to expand and added buildings. In 1947 due to the efforts of congresswoman Edith Nourse Rogers, the Bedford VA Hospital expanded its offerings to include women. In the early 1950s, operation at the Bedford VA was at its peak with the hospital logging more than 13,000 outpatient visits a year.
Who was Edith Nourse Rogers?
Edith Nourse Rogers developed her empathy towards veterans as a volunteer Red Cross worker during World War I. She was later elected to Congress in 1925, completing her late husband’s unfinished term. She went on to win 17 more elections, becoming the longest-serving woman in the history of the House of Representatives.
Mrs. Rogers was a renowned advocate for veterans affairs. In 1978 on its fiftieth anniversary, the Bedford Veterans Hospital was renamed “The Edith Nourse Rogers Memorial Veterans Hospital” by President Jimmy Carter in honor of the congresswoman’s dedication to veterans.
In November 2012, the hospital and surrounding 177 acres were listed as a historic district on the National Register of Historic Places.