By Edward Epstein
Sunday, March 19, 2023
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), acting amid a longstanding and quietly simmering controversy, is ending the use of a quote from President Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural address that has served as its mission statement, saying that the use of male pronouns alone doesn't represent today's diverse veterans community that includes about two million women.
"To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan," Lincoln said on March 4, 1865 in the last paragraph of his speech just after he took the oath of office for what turned out to be a tragically curtailed second presidential term. The VA in 1959 adopted the words as its mission statement, which appears on a brass plaque at the department's downtown Washington headquarters and at many VA facilities across the country.
The new mission statement still cites Lincoln, however. "To fulfill President Lincoln's promise to care for those who have served in our nation's military and for their families, caregivers, and survivors," it reads.
The new statement will replace the old motto at every VA facility where the old one was posted.
There have been calls to drop the Lincoln quote for years. A bipartisan bill was introduced in the House of Representatives and Senate to change the mission statement. It passed the House in September 2020 but went nowhere in the Senate. The department under President Joe Biden undertook a lengthy study of the issue, surveying some 30,000 veterans, including men, women, LGBTQ+ vets, Latinos, blacks, Asians and Native American veterans. It also consulted with family caregivers and veterans' survivors.
VA Secretary Denis McDonough said in a statement that "whenever any veteran, family member, caregiver or survivor walks by a VA facility, we want them to see themselves in the mission statement on the outside of the building. We are here to serve all veterans, their families, caregivers and survivors -- and now our mission statement reflects exactly that."
The department was originally petitioned to change the statement in 2018, but the Trump administration didn't act. In fact, Robert Wilkie, President Donald Trump's second Veterans Affairs secretary, told the House Veterans Affairs Committee in 2019 said he wouldn't make the change because he deeply respected Lincoln's words. "I'm not arrogant enough to say I want to change Abraham Lincoln's words," Wilkie said, according to Military.com.
He stressed that the department served all veterans. During his tenure, Wilkie added the motto to more VA facilities and had posters erected explaining how Lincoln's words exemplified the department's work.
Women vets make up about 10 percent of the total number of living U.S. veterans. Of the two million women vets, about 600,000 avail themselves of VA services, according to the department. In addition to women vets, the department heard from the gay and transgender community that the words left them feeling left out.
Image from the Library of Congress