The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Is the VA motto outdated and sexist? The head of the Iraq and Afghanistan veterans group thinks so.

Army Staff Sgt. Cantress R. Noel-Mabrey speaks during the 20th Anniversary of Women In Military Service For America Memorial celebration on Oct. 21, 2017, at Arlington National Cemetery. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

The Department of Veterans Affairs is coming under increasing pressure to change its motto to include female veterans, through an effort championed by the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), the largest organization representing post-9/11 veterans.

At issue is an 1865 quote from Abraham Lincoln, “To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan.” The quote was from Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address and became the motto for VA 59 years ago.

Plaques with the motto are often the first thing veterans see when entering hospitals and community care centers across the country.

IAVA Executive Director Allison Jaslow said her calls for a change since last March, including a strongly worded letter in October, were ignored by VA Secretary David Shulkin.

A spokesman for Shulkin, Curt Cashour, said VA will continue to use Lincoln’s quote as its motto, “unchanged.”

“VA is proud of Lincoln’s words as a historic tribute to all Veterans, including women Veterans, whose service and sacrifice inspires us all,” he said.

Jaslow said, “They’re missing the point — that women don’t feel comfortable at the VA. That action enshrined not only a motto, but a culture too that often renders women veterans invisible at the agency, even to this day. Every day that the VA preserves this motto, it ignores and obscures the needs of far too many women veterans.”

The debate has become a flash point between those veterans who argue that the embattled agency has bigger problems to deal with right now, including continuing long waits for appointments and countless scandals, and those who say female veterans are the fastest growing population and deserve respect.

Jaslow said that  last year’s scandal over a private Facebook group of 30,000 military members sharing images of nude female service members without their consent, and often with smutty and insulting comments, highlights the deeply rooted problem.

This week, the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine said results of a 4½-year study of VA mental health services included interviews in which many female combat veterans said that they weren’t believed about their war experience and often belittled by VA doctors.

Female veterans also say they experienced catcalls in VA facilities, which was particularly unsettling for women suffering from military sexual trauma, according to the report first written about by Stars and Stripes.

“A clinician in East Orange, New Jersey, said: ‘I think there are many, many people who fall through the cracks and don’t want to come here because they associate it with the very culture that traumatized them. That’s a huge barrier to treatment,’” the report states.

Jaslow says she would have appreciated a response directly from the Secretary, who she notes in the letter holds the authority to make the change.

Instead, late last month she received this letter from Kayla Williams, who is director of the center for women veterans at VA. Williams is a former Army intelligence specialist whose book “Love My rifle More Than You: Young and Female in the U.S. Army,”  details the culture of misogyny that female veterans endure.

Williams did not address the issue of a VA-wide change of the motto other than to say that it was representative of “the heart of our noble mission.”

But she did say:

Recognizing that they can seem exclusionary to some women veterans, for many years I — along with other senior VA leaders — have honored the population we serve today by using a modernized version. This symbolic update, which we are continuing to gradually incorporate alongside the original in digital and print materials, as well as spoken remarks, is an important acknowledgment of today’s veteran population.

Cashour said that Williams “did not clear her letter internally before sending, and it is not VA’s position.”

In a letter to the VA secretary last October, Jaslow gave examples of other military institutions that have changed their slogans to be more inclusive:

  • In 2003, the Air Force Academy took down its “Bring Me Men” sign and replaced it with a gender-inclusive motto: “Integrity First. Service Before Self. Excellence In All We Do.”
  • U.S. Military Academy officials changed their male-centered lyrics after hearing the songs performed at funerals for female graduates killed in combat.

“After conducting an investigation into the culture of sexual assault and hostility towards women at the Academy, the Air Force concluded that removing and replacing the “Bring Me Men Sign” was an urgent and essential step in making the Academy more supportive of its women cadets,” Jaslow wrote in the letter.

Read more about the issue here: Many military women don’t feel valued. Here’s a first step for fixing that.