Washington DC/USA Mar 25 2019/Signboard of United States Department of Veterans Affairs(VA).The VA stands in front of Lafayette Square Park in the north of the White House (Getty Images)
“To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan.” — Abraham Lincoln
These are words spoken by a president I admire so much that my youngest daughter’s middle name is Lincoln.
In 1865, when Lincoln delivered his second inaugural address – he was wrong. He inaccurately assumed that those who fought during the Civil War were just men. However, more than 400 women disguised themselves as men, and fought in the Union and Confederate armies during the Civil War.
Since 1959 this quotation has emblazoned the halls, walls, and now soon to be bronze plaques in the Veterans Affairs hospitals and cemeteries, and is a stark reminder to the women who have served that their service is insignificant.
When people ask me why i joined the Army two months after the terror attacks of September 11th, I usually quip, “because I’m a f****ing patriot.” And honestly, that’s true. I am a patriot, but to be a true patriot you have to recognize when your country is right and to call it out when it’s wrong.
Well, Department of Veterans Affairs, you are wrong.
When the Trump administration’s appointed leader, Secretary Robert Wilkie was asked to change the motto to be more inclusive of all who have served, he not only scoffed at the change, he double-downed on the motto. He pledged this Memorial Day to install new bronze plaques bearing the current, outdated and exclusionary motto at the VA’s 140 cemeteries.
When women show up at the VA they are not only greeted with a sign that doesn’t include them they are often harassed.
In one VA survey, “24 percent of respondents reported men harassed women, including through cat-calling, ogling, propositioning, groping, and questioning their veteran status. According to this survey, this harassment is considered a major factor in lower rates of VA usage between men and women.”
Women are the fastest growing demographic of veteran and military service members and other military institutions have recognized this and made significant changes to include women.
In 2003, the Air Force Academy took down its famous and cherished “Bring Me Men” sign which stood proudly on the stone arch since 1964. They replaced it 40 years later with a gender-inclusive motto: “Integrity First. Service Before Self. Excellence In All We Do.”
In 2004, the Naval Academy revised the lyrics to its fight song replacing “college men” and “sailor men” with “colleges” and “sailors.”
In 2008, West Point also made its traditional songs more inclusive. In “Alma Mater,” it replaced the line “Guide us, thy sons,” with “Guide us, thine own” and in “The Corps,” the “men of the Corps” was changed to “the ranks of the Corps.”
In 2016, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus launched an effort to update gendered occupational titles in order to reflect the integration of women into combat. Following this initiative, the United States Marine Corps updated nineteen occupational titles many of which just changed the word “man” to “Marine.”
Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) surveyed veterans about changing the motto to be more inclusive and the vast majority of men and women who have served are ok with the motto being updated with 68% of respondents agreeing and or being neutral to changing the motto.
The history and data is there to support a change to the VA’s motto. It will not only make the VA more welcoming to women but honor the service that they’ve given to this great nation.
U.S. Rep. Kathleen Rice, D-N.Y. introduced legislation (H.R. 3010) last year, the Honoring All Veterans Act, This bill, now before the House Veterans Affairs Committee, adds the following as a mission statement for the Department of Veterans Affairs: “To fulfill President Lincoln’s promise to care for those ‘who shall have borne the battle’ and for their families, caregivers, and survivors.”
Since Congress is back in session starting this week I am certain Rice will be back at it, pushing to have this motto changed and finally be reflective of all those who have borne the battle since the Civil War.
I’m quite certain that Abe Lincoln would have wanted it this way.
Opinion contributor Aryanna Hunter, of Pittsburgh, is an Iraq War veteran, author, advocate, and founder of What a Veteran Looks Like and #MeTooMST. Her work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page.
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