A House panel on Thursday advanced plans to replace the Department of Veterans Affairs mission statement with gender-neutral language, with Republican lawmakers offering strong support to the idea in opposition to the administration’s objections.
The measure — sponsored by Rep. Kathleen Rice, D-N.Y. — would change the current statement from “To fulfill President Lincoln’s promise ‘To care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan,’” to the less specific “To fulfill President Lincoln’s promise to care for those ‘who shall have borne the battle’ and for their families, caregivers, and survivors.”
The language has been at the center of an ongoing fight between women veterans advocates and department leaders since the start of President Donald Trump’s administration in 2017. Critics have called the motto outdated since it refers only to male veterans.
“VA’s current gender-exclusive motto doesn’t properly acknowledge (women’s) service, and that is simply wrong,” Rice said. “We’re just as grateful for their service and sacrifice as we are for anyone brave enough to put on our country’s uniform. That is why we must pass (this bill), to ensure that these veterans receive the respect they deserve.”
Department leaders have brushed off the effort as political correctness run amok, saying that changing Lincoln’s words would amount to revising history.
On Memorial Day, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie announced plans to install new bronze plaques bearing the phrase at each of the nation’s 140-plus veterans cemeteries later in 2020, in defiance of the calls for change.
Thursday’s vote from the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee still leaves a long legislative road ahead for the motto change to become law. The full House has only a few days left for chamber votes between now and the November elections, and the proposal has received limited support in the Republican-controlled Senate.
But GOP members on the committee offered no opposition to the measure at Thursday’s hearing, and ranking member Phil Roe, R-Tenn., called the move a reasonable and necessary step to recognize women veterans.
“Having President’s Lincoln’s full quote, with its repeated use of the male pronoun, serving as VA’s mission statement or motto did not cause those discrepancies. Changing it will not solve them either,” he said. “That said, words matter.
“I support this bill in recognition of the millions of women who have raised their right hands in service throughout the history of this great country, in gratitude for their bravery … and as a sign of my commitment to continuing to work to honor all those who have borne the battle.”
Roe noted that while Lincoln’s quote was part of his second inaugural address in 1865, the VA did not begin using the phrase as its mission statement until 1959. He said the dramatic increase in women’s roles in the military over the past six decades warrants the change.
Women make up more than 10 percent of the nation’s veterans population and 17 percent of current military personnel.
Thursday’s markup also included debate on 11 other bills, including measures to expand VA home loan eligibility to certain Guardsmen and reservists and to offer new job training programs to certain veterans left unemployed due to the current coronavirus pandemic.
No timeline has been announced for when the full chamber may consider any of the proposals.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.