The motto of the Department of Veterans Affairs is a quote from Abraham Lincoln, “To care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and his orphan.”
In place for the last six decades, in recent years it's been pointed out that it leaves out women veterans and surviving family members. A bill recently re-introduced in Congress would address what some view as “exclusionary” and “sexist”.
Rep. Kathleen Rice, D-N.Y., and Rep. Brian Mast, R-Fla., are leading the effort to adapt Lincoln's quote, amending the motto to read: “To fulfill President Lincoln’s promise to care for those ‘who shall have borne the battle’ and for their families, caregivers, and survivors.”
A companion bill is in the Senate, introduced by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.
"A long overdue motto change at the VA would support women veterans and take a significant and meaningful step in recognizing their military service," said Iraq Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), CEO Jeremy Butler. “This new legislation retains the heart of Lincoln’s historic statement while placing the outdated motto in the history books.”
A previous bill on the same subject was introduced last session, but there was little progress on it before it died.
"As women continue to play an increasingly vital role in our armed forces, they’ve become a larger and more prominent part of our veteran community,” Rice said. “But unfortunately, the Department of Veterans Affairs mission statement simply does not reflect that new reality. The brave women who have worn our nation's uniform and their families deserve to be equally embraced by the motto of the very agency meant to support them. This bill will finally give women veterans the recognition they deserve for their service and sacrifice – it’s long overdue.”
The motto change is not just about including women veterans, though -- it’s also about recognizing family members other than wives and children, Mast said.
“I also know personally that when I deployed to Afghanistan and was injured, it wasn’t just a challenge for me, but it deeply impacted my wife and our entire family,” he said. “Acknowledging the ongoing needs of families, caregivers and survivors is another critical improvement.”
VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said in February he had no plans to change the motto.
“I’m not arrogant enough to say I want to change Abraham Lincoln’s words,” he said at a House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing. "We serve all veterans and I am not in favor of changing the motto. I let actions speak louder than words."
Marine veteran Kayda Keleher, associate director for national legislative services at the VFW said she believes changing the motto could actually harm women veterans because changing the motto could cost "millions in taxpayer dollars" when the VA updates its materials to reflect the new motto.
Sen. Tammy Duckworth, an Army veteran who represents Lincoln’s home state of Illinois, said she’d be comfortable with a small change.
“I understand why many women want to make this change, but I see it as a historical statement and a solid mission statement,” Duckworth told Connecting Vets. “I’m also proud to hail from the home state of Abraham Lincoln, an American hero who uttered this motto in a speech delivered a month before the end of the Civil War. I wouldn’t have a problem if they wanted to change ‘him’ to ‘they/their.”