Program at VA Ceremony Featured Gender-Neutral Version of Lincoln Quote

At the Department of Veterans Affairs'launch of its new claims appeals process, the back of the event program had a gender-neutral version of the agency's motto. Nikki Wentling/Stars and Stripes via Twitter
At the Department of Veterans Affairs'launch of its new claims appeals process, the back of the event program had a gender-neutral version of the agency's motto. Nikki Wentling/Stars and Stripes via Twitter

Despite a gender-neutral version of the Department of Veterans Affairs' mission statement popping up Tuesday on programs for a ceremony heralding the VA's new appeals modernization system, the department isn't officially changing its motto.

The statement on the program, "To care for those 'who shall have borne the battle' and for their families and survivors," is a variation on the department's official version: "To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan," uttered by Abraham Lincoln during his second inaugural address on March 4, 1865.

But a VA spokeswoman said Tuesday that the language in the program, which was captured in a Twitter photo by Stars and Stripes, was "incorrect."

"VA's policy on the use of Lincoln's direct quote as our mission statement remains unchanged," spokeswoman Susan Carter said, forwarding a statement made July 23 by Acting Chief of Staff Jacquelyn Hayes-Byrd.

The statement notes that the VA interprets the use of "him" as assuming "gender neutrality in this historical usage and context."

"This mission statement is effective department-wide. Administrations and staff offices may not paraphrase it or alter it on official VA documents or in external or internal presentations," Hayes-Byrd wrote.

In October, the Veterans Legal Services Clinic at Yale Law School, supported by several veterans organizations, including the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), the Service Women's Action Network and the NYC Veterans Alliance, petitioned the VA to change the motto to encompass all department beneficiaries.

During the last Congress, two New York Democrats, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Rep. Kathleen Rice, introduced legislation to change the motto to read "To fulfill President Lincoln's promise to care for those 'who shall have borne the battle' and for their families, caregivers and survivors.'" The bills had the support of 11 other lawmakers but never made it out of committee.

VA officials have said they are reviewing the issue, but no change has officially been made.

Last year, Kayla Williams, director of the VA Center for Women Veterans, told Fox News that the VA had gradually been introducing the gender-neutral version.

An annual survey of IAVA members released in early February showed that most respondents favored the change or had no opinion on it. Of the 4,600 members polled, 46 percent "strongly" or "somewhat" supported the change, while "30 percent "strongly" or "somewhat" opposed it. Another 24 percent were neutral.

The program was distributed at a ceremony marking the debut of the VA's new appeals modernization system, a major update to the department's process for reviewing all appeals for claims and program application denials.

Calling the new system "better for our veterans," David McLenachen, director of the VA's appeals management office, said it will fix a broken process.

"Starting today, every person who receives a decision on a VA benefit claim, regardless as to whether that was made in one of [the Veterans Benefits Administration's] six benefit business lines, or in programs administered by the Veterans Health Administration or the National Cemetery Administration, will have a new decision-review process that is timely and transparent," he said. "It's truly a historic event for millions of veterans, family members and survivors who receive these decisions each year."

McLenachen thanked VA Secretary Robert Wilkie and his predecessors, especially former acting Secretary Sloan Gibson, who initiated the modernization.

Wilkie said appeals modernization is the direct result of collaboration between the VA, veterans service organizations and Congress "to deliver on veterans' long-standing desire for reform of the legacy appeals system."

"Beginning today, veterans will have greater choice in how VA reviews their disagreement with a VA claims decision and enjoy timely resolutions of disagreements through a streamlined process," he said.

For more information on how the new appeals process will work, see VA to Rollout Appeals Modernization Process. All claims filed under the old system will remain in the legacy review process.

-- Patricia Kime can be reached at patricia.kime@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.

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