The Department of Veterans Affairs is dropping a motto it adopted 64 years ago in favor of a new mission statement replacing language that critics argued marginalized female veterans and military families, leading to unequal treatment.
The new, more inclusive statement, to be announced Thursday by VA Secretary Denis McDonough, will be: “To fulfill President Lincoln’s promise to care for those who have served in our nation’s military and for their families, caregivers and survivors.”
The phrase is a modified version of the current motto — which addresses male combat veterans and their families and adorns roughly half of all VA buildings — taken from Lincoln’s second inaugural address: “To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan.”
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The new mission statement recognizes not only all veterans, but the sacrifices of their families, including spouses, parents and children who have lost a service member and those who have dedicated their lives to caring for an injured veteran or supporting them.
McDonough’s immediate predecessor, Robert Wilkie, had resisted suggestions to change the motto, telling Congress in 2019 that his respect for Lincoln’s verbiage would not allow modification.
“I’m not arrogant enough to say I want to change Abraham Lincoln’s words,” Wilkie told the House Veterans Affairs Committee during a hearing.
But McDonough pledged to review it shortly after taking office in 2021.
He said Thursday prior to the announcement that the department wanted “any veteran, family member, caregiver or survivor” to walk by a VA facility and “see themselves in the mission statement.”
“We are here to serve all Veterans, their families, caregivers, and survivors — and now, our mission statement reflects exactly that,” McDonough said in a press release.
The VA provides care and benefits to millions of veterans who never deployed to combat, as well as 600,000 female veterans, 50,000 caregivers and 600,000 survivors of deceased veterans.
VA officials said they conducted two surveys of 30,000 veterans and held focus groups on the subject when considering the change.
According to the VA, the surveys showed that every age group and demographic, including white, African American, Hispanic, Asian, American Indian and Alaska Native veterans, preferred the new statement over the current version.
The veterans advocacy group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America has lobbied since 2017 to get the motto changed, saying the original Lincoln version failed to recognize not only two million women, but their survivors as well, writing in a 2021 statement that the language was “relegating them to the fringes of the veteran community.”
Allison Jaslow, a former Army officer who serves as chief executive officer of the group, launched the #SheWhoBorneTheBattle campaign that year to increase awareness of the gendered language, saying that it was a symptom of a culture at the VA that led to inadequate care for women. Earlier this month, she told Military.com that the effort was not to “take shots at the president’s words,” but to promote a culture that recognizes the service of all veterans.
“Culture is all about the tone you set at the top, and we believe that the motto is emblematic of the fact that the culture, or at least at the tone, is not being set at the top for equal treatment of women veterans and other veterans,” Jaslow said during an interview. “Not only is it an important move for the VA … we’re also trying to get the rest of America to see women veterans.”
In 2019, lawmakers introduced a bill that would have required the VA to change the motto. It passed the House but was never introduced in the Senate. Lawmakers again reintroduced the legislation in 2021, but that version never made it to the Senate or House Veterans Affairs Committees for consideration.
Lincoln first uttered the quote used as the basis for the VA’s mission statement on March 4, 1865, and varying versions of it have appeared at times on unofficial VA correspondence, programs, paperwork and, in one case, even an official statement.
They included: “To care for those ‘who shall have borne the battle’ and for their families and survivors;” and “To fulfill President Lincoln’s promise ‘To care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan’ by serving and honoring the men and women who are America’s veterans.”
But while those in the VA tweaked the statement privately for internal use, the original wording appeared on bronze plaques on more than half of the department’s buildings, and in 2020, Wilkie installed interpretive signs containing the speech and its link to the motto at all 145 VA cemeteries.
When Wilkie introduced the cemetery signs, he again defended the decision to retain the motto.
“Today’s VA welcomes all veterans, including the 10% of all Veterans who are women. The words that brought us here should not be diluted, parsed or canceled,” he said in a press release at the time.
VA officials purposefully scheduled the announcement of the name change for Women’s History Month. When President Joe Biden issued a proclamation Feb. 28 recognizing March as Women’s History Month, he reaffirmed his administration’s commitment to advancing “gender equity and equality.”
“Ours is the only Nation in the world established upon a profound but simple idea — that all people are created equal. My Administration is committed to upholding that idea and to making its promise real for every American,” Biden wrote in the proclamation.
McDonough is expected to officially unveil the new motto at 2 p.m. Thursday at the Military Women’s Memorial in Arlington, Virginia. It will be livestreamed.
Veterans, veteran survivors and caregivers are expected to speak at the event, including Army veteran Mary Tobin, a West Point graduate and Iraq War veteran. In a statement issued before the event, Tobin praised the change.
“In the places and spaces [like VA] that committed to helping me heal my visible and invisible wounds from war, I never expected to feel unseen. Today, in the words reflected in this new motto, all those who served and sacrificed for this country can finally feel seen,” Tobin said.
The department estimates that the total cost to replace or remove all plaques, stationery or other signs bearing the old motto, to include the cemetery signs, will be less than $2 million.
— Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Military.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime
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