YMCA Celebrates Over 150 Years of Support for Our Troops


This Veterans Day, we are reminded of the YMCA’s proud heritage of supporting the United States armed forces, which dates back more than 150 years and continues today.

In April, 1861, barely 10 years since the founding of the YMCA in America, President Abraham Lincoln engaged the Y to recruit volunteers to aid the nation’s cause during the Civil War.

Eventually more than 5,000 volunteers provided relief and comfort to sick and wounded soldiers. They distributed medical supplies, food and clothing, and taught soldiers to read and write. Initially the volunteers provided aid at military encampments located near the front, but shortly after, they braved the danger accompanying the soldiers on the battlefields.

By 1864, the iconic Coffee Wagon, also called the Cooking Wagon, became synonymous with comfort for soldiers. Invented and built by Jacob Dunton of Philadelphia, it is estimated that 90 gallons of tea, coffee or hot chocolate could be every hour and provided food for 400 soldiers. As they said, “a most ingenious and beneficent invention.”

In 1898, at the onset of the Spanish American War, the YMCA sent more than 500 volunteers to various stations in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. YMCA’s volunteer efforts were so highly regarded that the U.S. government established a permanent Army and Navy Committee to give national direction to the work of the YMCA.

In 1902, U.S. Congress established permanent YMCA facilities on military bases. By 1914, there were 31 military YMCA’s, 180 travelling libraries, and 250,000 military staying in YMCA dormitories.

When the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, the YMCA launched a massive program of morale and welfare services for the military, serving 90% of American military forces in Europe. Never in history had an organization aided so many troops over such a wide geographic area and under such adverse conditions. By war’s end, the YMCA, through the United War Work Council, had operated 1,500 canteens in the United States and France; set up 4,000 YMCA huts for recreation and religious services; and raised more than $235 million—equivalent to $4.3 billion today—for relief work.

A generation later, as America entered World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt asked the YMCA to take the lead in mobilizing military support. The YMCA, YWCA, National Catholic Community Services, Jewish Welfare Board, Salvation Army, and National Travelers Aid Association came together and formed the United Services Organizations (USO). The YMCA operated many of these USO sites, which organized activities to lift the spirits of servicemen and women. The USO’s work extended through the Korean, Vietnam and Gulf Wars; they continue to do so today.

Also during World War II, YMCA staff worked secretly in U.S. internment camps holding 110,000 Japanese Americans, organizing clubs and activities for the children.

In 1951, the USO reactivated during the Korean War, with the YMCA serving as its major operating agency and continuing operations through the Vietnam conflict and Gulf War.

In 1980 the YMCA founded the National Military Family Resource Center at the request of the United States Department of Health and Human Services and the United States Department of Defense. In 1984 the Armed Services YMCA was formed through a memorandum of understanding between the United States Department of Defense and the YMCA.

The Armed Services Y is specifically dedicated to serving junior-enlisted military service members and their families of all five armed services. The oldest military support organization in the U.S., the ASYMCA serves our troops through its 12 branches and more than 200 program centers, serving 93 military installations nationwide.

Across the country, local YMCAs like the YMCA of Austin continue to serve members of our armed services and veterans through our Military Outreach Initiative, which provides reduced or subsidized rates to qualifying military members and their families. More information is available here.

This Veterans Day, Wednesday, November 11, the YMCA of Austin invites military members and their families to enjoy a day of fun, healthy activities at all 9 Austin Y branches for free. Those who choose to join will also receive a waiver of the $49 Join Fee. More information is available by calling (512) 730-9622 or visiting www.austinymca.org.


Sean Doles
All opinions expressed here are those of their authors and/or contributors and not of their employer. Any questions or concerns regarding the content found here may be sent to info@austinymca.org

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