Stymied in the Trump Era, Lawmakers Launch New Attempt to Make VA Motto Gender-Neutral

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Secretary of Veterans Affairs Denis McDonough.
Secretary of Veterans Affairs Denis McDonough speaks during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs on Capitol Hill, Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2021, in Washington. (Sarah Silbiger/Pool via AP)

A bipartisan group of lawmakers is again moving to change the Department of Veterans Affairs' motto to be more inclusive toward women and LGBTQ troops after the effort failed during the Trump administration.

The VA's current motto, in use since 1959, quotes President Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural address in 1865: "To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan."

A new measure introduced Thursday by Reps. Kathleen Rice, D-N.Y., and Steve Stivers, R-Ohio, would 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."

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Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, also introduced a Senate version of the bill Thursday.

The move to remove the word "him" from the motto has been a yearslong effort by veteran activists and lawmakers who argue that the change is just a small part of a larger push to make the VA a more welcoming place for women. It would also reflect female troops' dramatically expanded role in the armed forces, they say, including combat roles opening up to women relatively recently. 

"It is long overdue for the Department of Veterans Affairs to update its mission statement to reflect all Americans who have fought for our nation," Rice said in a statement. "Women and LGBTQ military service members and veterans have sacrificed their lives to keep the rest of us safe, and they deserve to have this service properly recognized by the agency that serves them."

Roughly 35,000 women served during World War I; 140,000  served in World War II. About 7,000 served in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. The post-9/11 wars saw a huge spike in women joining the military, with some 700,000 female troops serving in Afghanistan and Iraq, according to VA data.  

VA Secretary Denis McDonough told lawmakers at a recent hearing that more women than ever are choosing the VA for their health care, accounting for more than 30% of new enrollees during the past five years -- more than triple the number of women enrolled in 2001. 

Shortly after being confirmed, McDonough orders a top-down review of his agency's policies to ensure they comply with a presidential executive order designed to combat discrimination on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation.

A VA spokesman said the department is not yet taking an official stance on the motto. 

"Obviously, this is something that came up in the context of confirmation hearings and my conversations with the veterans service organizations. I'm not in a position to announce anything on that," McDonough said in February

This follows a contentious fight between veterans organizations and former VA Secretary Robert Wilkie during the Trump administration. Wilkie told Military.com last fall that the "only time [he heard] anything about this motto is from activists" in Washington, D.C.

Wilkie emphasized his opposition to changing the motto when he went to Lincoln's hometown of Springfield, Illinois, in August 2020 to dedicate a plaque bearing the current phrase at a VA cemetery. 

-- Steve Beynon can be reached at Steve.Beynon@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StevenBeynon.

Related: McDonough Orders Review of VA Policies to Ensure Inclusion of LGBT Vets, Employees  

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