In a recent federal document, the Department of Veterans Affairs changed the wording of its official motto. While the VA has come out to say it was an error, the phrasing has once again raised the topic of gender neutrality within the department, and people have been actively sharing their thoughts.
Miscommunication leads to confusion and outrage
In a July 23 Federal Register notice, the VA featured a gender-neutral version of its motto. The notice, which discussed the reporting of veterans’ medical and benefits debt to credit agencies, featured the following phrasing of the maxim: “care for those who shall have borne the battle and for their families and survivors.”
The statement was a variation of the Abraham Lincoln quote, “To care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan.” While specifying “him,” the VA’s website clarifies it is dedicated to “serving and honoring the men and women who are America’s veterans.”
Speaking with Military.com, VA spokesperson Randy Noller said the motto in the July 23 document was a mistake: “This entry was made in error, and we are going back to the originating office to ensure the mistake is not repeated going forward.”
Calls for gender neutrality and inclusivity
There has been a push to make the VA motto more inclusive to women and those within the LGBTQ+ community since 2017. In 2019, female veterans testified before a Veterans Affairs subcommittee about the feelings of invisibility they experience when interacting with VA employees and the culture of sexual harassment they feel is rampant in the organization.
They outlined a host of proposed changes they would like to see, including changing the VA’s motto. “Continuing to maintain and uphold the motto, despite women veterans having called for change, signals a willful desire to exclude us,” said Lindsay Church, a Navy veteran and the CEO of Minority Veterans of America.
“Changing the motto won’t by itself address the deep cultural divide that exists between women in the veterans community, but it is a step in the direction toward inclusivity,” she added.
House bills have previously been put forth regarding changing the motto. In 2020, Representative Kathleen Rice presented a bill that passed the House, but it was never brought before the Senate. This year, both she and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand have introduced new legislation aimed at changing the motto’s phrasing to: “To fulfill President Lincoln’s promise to care for those ‘who shall have borne the battle’ and for their families, caregivers, and survivors.”
I introduced a bill to update the VA motto to be inclusive of women & LGBTQ veterans.
Thank you @RepSteveStivers, @gillibrandny, @lisamurkowski & @iava for joining me in this effort to ensure ALL veterans receive the recognition they deserve from the VA.https://t.co/mL7EACKKj1
— Kathleen Rice (@RepKathleenRice) April 23, 2021
The legislation is endorsed by Senator Lisa Murkowski, the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, the Military Women’s Coalition, and Minority Veterans of America. It has been met with backlash from the public, with some accusing Rice and Gillibrand of “changing [America’s] history.”
Pushback on changing the motto
Despite increased calls to update the motto, spokesperson Noller reiterates that no official change has been made. Efforts to change it were rebuffed by the Trump administration, which argued it was a fashioning of political correctness.
Then-VA secretary Robert Wilkie stated it would be a costly measure to change the motto at the VA’s many facilities and in its literature. Other officials have previously said that the “him” in Lincoln’s phrasing connotes gender neutrality, similar to using “mankind” or “man” to describe humans.
When current VA secretary Denis McDonough assumed the position, he shared that he planned to review the department’s policies to ensure they align with a Presidential Executive Order designed to combat gender and sexual orientation discrimination. The motto is one aspect he’s looking at, but no official change has been announced.
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In spite of the pushback, versions of the gender-neutral motto have occasionally appeared in documentation. As well, some VA facilities have used a version of the motto on placards and event programs, which reads: “To care for those ‘who shall have borne the battle’ and for their families and survivors.” This version has not been authorized by the department.