The Department of Veteran Affairs recently announced its intent to install new bronze plaques bearing a quote from Lincoln’s second inaugural address. It reads, “To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan" at each of the nation’s 140 VA cemeteries.
If the past weeks have taught us anything, it is that words matter. White-washing histories means stories and lives of so many are unrecognized and similarly, gender-washing our VA cemeteries only serves to keep the contributions of women service members invisible.
Women are the fastest growing group of veterans and there are currently nearly half a million who use at least one form of VA benefits. Instead of using this knowledge to create a more gender-inclusive VA, the secretary has decided it is more important to honor the words of a long-deceased president than the service of those he is charged to serve.
This is not the first time the VA has failed women. VA hospitals have been reported to be threatening and dangerous environments for women service members and recognition for female needs ranging from infertility to safety are long overdue. Women veterans are less likely than men to seek care at VA, and advocates say that’s due at least in part to gender and sexual harassment by male veterans at VA hospitals and clinics. Instead of rectifying the problems from within the department, it seems it is digging in its heels to continue to make women feel as if they are unvalued pieces of the war-fighting machine.
Additionally, the gender of the service member is not the only thing wrong with this quote. A Gold Star child who loses one parent, either a father or a mother to service, is not an orphan unless the other parent too has passed. Here the VA has ample opportunity to acknowledge the outstanding efforts of widows — of all genders — who step forward and raise their non-orphaned children as single parents — many of which are supported by the VA.
I will not use this medium to explain and justify my history of military service as important nor will I explain to readers why it should be recognized. Women service members have had to justify their existence in uniform from their first day of training and now it seems, we are also being asked to justify it in death.
Tara Heidger is an Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran, 2017 Pat Tillman Scholar, freelance journalist and recent graduate of Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs.
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