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Lawmakers try again to change VA motto with new administration

The Department of Veterans Affairs headquarters in Washington, D.C.

STARS AND STRIPES

By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: April 29, 2021

WASHINGTON — Lawmakers are trying again to change the Department of Veterans Affairs motto to include female veterans after efforts were hindered under President Donald Trump.

The VA motto, which has been the same for 62 years, is a quote from President Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address in 1865: “To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan.”

Representatives Kathleen Rice, D-N.Y., and Steve Stivers, R-Ohio, along with senators Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, introduced legislation in the House and Senate last week to change the motto. If adopted, it would use gender-neutral pronouns and read: “To fulfill President Lincoln’s promise to care for those ‘who shall have borne the battle’ and for their families, caregivers, and survivors.”

Some lawmakers and advocates for female veterans have been trying since 2017 to make the motto gender inclusive. Their efforts in Congress and their appeals to former VA secretaries have failed.

A new presidential administration presents an opportunity for the change to take hold. However, it remains uncertain whether President Joe Biden and VA Secretary Denis McDonough will support the effort.

During a news conference Monday, McDonough said he was “giving that a close look” but hadn’t made any decisions.

McDonough established a task force this month to make recommendations to improve inclusion, equity and access at the VA. The task force is supposed to be done by July 31.

For years, female veterans and their advocates have argued that the motto is sexist and exclusionary and is symbolic of larger, systemic issues inside the department, from inadequate health care for women to a culture that tolerates sexual harassment.

“Every veteran should feel welcome at the VA in an environment that celebrates the service of America’s veteran community as a whole,” said Jeremy Butler, CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “This is a critical first step, and much more work needs to be done to pass the bill into law this year.” 

When the idea to make the motto gender-neutral was proposed in 2017, the VA dismissed the change. During the last months of his tenure as VA secretary in 2018, David Shulkin began to use the gender-neutral version when speaking about the department’s mission but took no formal action to change it.

The next VA secretary, Robert Wilkie, publicly rejected the idea of altering the motto and instead sought new ways to ingrain the existing motto within the department.

Under Wilkie’s direction, the department installed signs last year at all 145 national veterans’ cemeteries that explain the origins of the VA and the motto. A plaque inscribed with the motto was unveiled last summer at the Camp Butler National Cemetery, near Lincoln’s tomb in Springfield, Ill.

wentling.nikki@stripes.com
Twitter: @nikkiwentling