In his first message to Veterans Affairs staff shortly after confirmation in early 2020, Secretary Denis McDonough promised to make the department more “inclusive” as an institution, and to ensure that “VA welcomes all veterans, including women, veterans of color and LGBTQ veterans.”
But in the 16 months since, most VA facilities still welcome veterans with a motto emblazoned on the wall that is focused on men only, a message that is less-than-inviting for many veterans, critics say.
“There have already been so many good opportunities to change the motto and make it more inclusive to veterans who are women, transgender, gay,” said Kaitlynne Hetrick, government affairs associate at Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “But it feels like they’re just pushing the issue aside.”
The fight centers on the the long-used department motto, which quotes President Abraham Lincoln’s promise in his second inaugural address: “To care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and his orphan.”
Advocates say the motto is too specific for today’s diverse veterans community and have lobbied for a change to gender-neutral language: “To care for those who shall have borne the battle, and for their families, caregivers and survivors.”
The idea has gained support from Democratic lawmakers and a few Republican members of Congress, but that idea was largely sidelined during President Donald Trump administration when then-VA Secretary Robert Wilkie publicly opposed any change, claiming it was a revision of American history.
Supporters had hoped that when McDonough took over, the idea could move quickly as part of Biden’s promised reforms for VA. Instead, the issue has languished for months.
Veterans organizations said they were surveyed about potential changes months ago, but have not heard back on the issue. When asked about it, department officials said they had no pending announcements.
“The frustration level over this is very high,” Hetrick said. “There’s no update, nothing happening.”
Lindsay Church, executive director of Minority Veterans of America, said the group’s members are increasingly upset over VA’s lack of movement on the motto and other inclusion issues.
“We’re seeing commitments and nice words, but not any actual action,” Church said. “The trust with our community is eroding every day.”
House lawmakers advanced legislation in 2020 to force the motto change, but the matter stalled in the Senate. One of the sponsors of that effort — Rep. Kathleen Rice, D-N.Y. — said she believes the issue is most easily handled by VA administrators now, and hopes to see action soon.
But she said VA officials have not offered any recent updates on the issue.
“It is long overdue,” she said of the need to change the motto. “I think everyone is aware of it … but I think that other issues have taken center stage, the pandemic and other priorities.”
The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that changing the motto will cost about $1 million over five years, as plaques and displays are replaced with the new wording.
Church and Hetrick said they are still hopeful that a motto change could take place before the November elections. If Republicans regain control of Congress after that, the political fight over making a change could become more complicated, and encroach on other department legislative priorities.
“We made so much progress on this in the past,” Church said. “So this is frustrating now. Where are the results?”
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.