Despite controversy surrounding the department’s motto, Veterans Affairs leaders are planning to install new bronze plaques bearing the phrase at each of the nation’s 140-plus veterans cemeteries later this year.
The move was announced over Memorial Day weekend in Secretary Robert Wilkie’s annual message to the country about the holiday.
He said the phrase — “To care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan," an excerpt from President Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address — is an important touchstone for the department workforce and all of America.
“Those words are the basis of our VA mission, to care for our veterans and their families,” he said. “That’s why later this year, we will memorialize — in bronze — Lincoln’s charge to the nation in all of our VA cemeteries.”
VA officials said the decision to install the plaques was made in January, but it was not publicly announced until months later. VA press secretary Christina Noel said there is no cost estimate for the work or specific time frame for when it will be finished.
The motto has drawn criticism in recent years as the number of women veterans in America has steadily increased. Several lawmakers and outside advocates have pushed for a more gender inclusive motto — “To care for those who have borne the battle, and for their families and survivors.”
Women make up more than 10 percent of the nation’s veterans population and 17 percent of current military personnel.
But VA officials have consistently opposed such a move, citing cost concerns and historical accuracy.
Critics argue that the current department motto ignores the contributions of women in the military.
Rep. Kathleen Rice, D-N.Y. and one of the leading congressional voices pushing for a motto change, called the new bronze plaques “an outrageous disservice” to women veterans.
“I have urged Secretary Wilkie to update the motto on several occasions, but the VA has refused, arguing it would be too costly to change,” she said. “However, this proposal to spend more money on displays of the current motto blatantly contradicts that reasoning.”
Similarly, officials from Service Women's Action Network called the move insulting to women veterans.
"(This) is a permanent acknowledgement that women veterans are not seen and their contributions are not recognized,” said SWAN CEO Deshauna Barber. “If women veterans are invisible in the VA motto, where else are they invisible?
“The VA motto needs to be gender-inclusive and reflect the current reality of our military force, which contains a sizable female veteran population that deserve to be acknowledged for their service.”
Noel said department officials were not concerned about the potential for controversy with the bronze plaques because “this was a direct quote from President Lincoln’s second inaugural and is verbatim.” She also noted the quote is already etched in stone at the Lincoln Memorial.
A new House task force will look at the challenges facing women veterans at VA an in society at large.
“Of course today, our mission is focused more broadly on the men and women veterans we treat in our medical facilities, provide earned benefits, and inter in our national cemeteries and their families,” she said.
On Wednesday, during an online hearing for the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, ranking member Phil Roe, R-Tenn., threw his support behind a motto change, calling an update to include women “very appropriate” to consider.
“We certainly don't want to change what Lincoln said, but it's time in the 21st century to change it to 'those who have borne the battle," which would include all our veterans,” he said.
The revived motto controversy is the second historical fight for Veterans Affairs officials in recent weeks.
Last month, officials from the Military Religious Freedom Foundation filed a complaint about Nazi swastikas on several headstones of German prisoners of war graves at a pair of VA cemeteries.
The headstones are engraved with a swastika, an iron cross and inscription in German that reads “He died far from his home for the Führer, people and fatherland.”
The graves date back to the 1940s, but group leaders argued the offensive symbols needed to be removed given updated understanding of the imagery and new extremist and anit-Semetic activity in America today.
But Wilkie for several weeks argued in favor of keeping the headstones, calling them an important historical recognition of the horrors of World War II. Last week, VA leaders relented, saying they would begin the process of removing the grave markers.
In testimony before Congress this week, Wilkie said that the department has worked on improving outreach to women veterans in recent years, enrolling about 40 percent of the population eligible for VA health care services.