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

The Department of Veterans Affairs headquarters in Washington, D.C. (Stars and Stripes)

The Department of Veterans Affairs has changed its motto from an Abraham Lincoln quote that includes a male pronoun to one that is more inclusive of women, the VA announced Thursday.

The new mission statement is “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.”

It replaces the former motto from Lincoln’s second inaugural address in 1865: “To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan.” Mary Tobin, a medically retired Army officer, spoke Thursday at a ceremony in Arlington, Va., to commemorate the change, and she recalled the sting of seeing those words when she first walked into a VA facility.

“I did not serve the Army for awards, commendations and accolades, so I never needed to be thanked for my service. But in the places that have committed to helping me heal from my visible and invisible wounds from war, I never expected to feel unseen,” she said. “Words matter, written or spoken, and we are sometimes the difference between recognizing selfless service of all Americans or staying true to outdated traditions that exclude the sacrificial service of so many.”

The VA adopted its old motto in 1959 — about a decade after legislation formally allowed women to serve.

The new mission statement is inclusive of all those who have served in the military and pulls in nonveterans who also utilize VA services, the agency said in a news release.

The VA said it landed on the new mission statement after surveying roughly 30,000 veterans on their opinion of the change with the new motto taking the lead among every group asked.

Women make up the fastest growing population among veterans and the VA now serves more than 600,000 female veterans, 50,000 veteran caregivers, more than 600,000 survivor family members of veterans, and millions of veterans who did not serve in combat, according to the agency.

During Thursday’s ceremony, VA Secretary Denis McDonough said the change is just part of the VA’s efforts to improve trust in its services among female veterans.

“We still have a lot of work to do and a long journey to go,” he said.

McDonough also noted the importance of including caregivers within the updated motto.

Patricia Ochan spoke at the ceremony about leaving her career to care for her Marine veteran husband.

“You are telling us you are invested in our wellbeing as caregivers,” she said. “We finally feel seen. We finally feel appreciated for the incredible service we have silently offered our veterans.”

Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, an advocacy group for post-9/11 veterans, began a campaign in 2017 that called for the VA to make a change to its motto. The VA initially rejected the proposal.

Under former President Donald Trump’s administration, then-VA Secretary Robert Wilkie sought new ways to engrain the motto within the department and had begun installing plaques inscribed with the old motto at 142 VA-operated cemeteries nationwide in 2020.

When McDonough was confirmed as President Joe Biden’s lead at the agency, he took a more open-minded approach. He included an examination of the motto in a 2021 policy review to make the agency a more welcoming and inclusive place for LGBTQ veterans and employees.

“For too long, women and LGBTQ+ veterans have been considered ‘invisible veterans’ — feeling inadequately recognized by our fellow Americans,” Allison Jaslow, an Iraq War veteran and IAVA CEO, said in a statement. “Today’s historic move by the VA rightly begins to change that. We’re one step closer to changing the way America sees its veterans today, and that’s a damn good reason to celebrate.”

The VA released a study in 2020 that found women veterans were less likely to report feeling welcome at VA health care facilities, and 25% reported inappropriate or unwanted comments or behavior from male veterans while accessing care. Those comments included sexual or derogatory comments and questions about their identity and right to access the VA.

Jaslow cited this study to show the motto change is about more than words.

“It was about the need for culture change at the VA and setting the right tone from the top,” she said. “We must be relentless until the culture at the VA makes every veteran, and their loved ones, feel like they’re supported fully.”

The House passed legislation in 2020 to change the motto to one more inclusive, but the bill never made it into law.

Rep. Mark Takano of California, the top Democrat on the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, praised the change.

“As our military becomes more diverse, so does our veteran population, which includes more women than ever before. Words are powerful tools, and any veteran, family member, caregiver, or survivor visiting a VA health care facility or sacred resting place in a cemetery should know that VA is, and will always be, a place for them, that all veterans’ service is valued and recognized, and that this nation will always be grateful to them, and those they leave behind,” he said in a prepared statement.

The old motto is posted in about 50% of VA’s facilities, the department said. The VA will replace each one with the new statement during the coming months.

author picture
Rose L. Thayer is based in Austin, Texas, and she has been covering the western region of the continental U.S. for Stars and Stripes since 2018. Before that she was a reporter for Killeen Daily Herald and a freelance journalist for publications including The Alcalde, Texas Highways and the Austin American-Statesman. She is the spouse of an Army veteran and a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin with a degree in journalism. Her awards include a 2021 Society of Professional Journalists Washington Dateline Award and an Honorable Mention from the Military Reporters and Editors Association for her coverage of crime at Fort Hood.

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive a daily email of today's top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign Up Now