The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

VA employees wanted a gender-neutral mission statement. The agency refused.

Air Force Staff Sgts. Ana Nichols and Joel Allen, with the 514th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron, participate in a training exercise aboard a C-130 flying over Alabama late last year. (Master Sgt. Mark C. Olsen/U.S. Air Force)

What began as a rallying cry among post-9/11 military veterans has revealed deep divisions within the Department of Veterans Affairs headquarters, where, in an apparent act of rebellion, staffers amended the agency’s 59-year-old motto on a newly released strategic document because the words exclude mention of women’s service and sacrifice.

The document, outlining VA’s objectives through 2024, was posted to the agency’s website Monday evening and removed a day later when officials learned its mission statement had undergone unauthorized editing. At issue is omission of the word him, which appears in a line from Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address in 1865 — and VA’s motto since 1959: “To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan.”

The strategic document instead phrased VA’s mission statement this way: “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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It was not immediately clear who altered the mission statement, but VA spokesman Curt Cashour said the change was “not cleared internally before publication, and it is not VA’s position.” An updated version, containing Lincoln’s full quote, was released later Tuesday.

“VA is proud of Lincoln’s words as a historic tribute to all Veterans, including women Veterans, whose service and sacrifice inspires us all,” Cashour wrote in a statement. “If some VA employees feel differently, they are entitled to their personal view, but it is not VA policy.”

The debate exposes internal tension within the federal government’s second largest bureaucracy, what observers characterize as a generational rift. On one side are those who note that female veterans, particularly those who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, represent a rapidly growing demographic and deserve respect. On the other are those who see the effort as political correctness run wild and a distraction from the troubled agency’s myriad problems.

Those familiar with the debate say it also tends to break along political lines. President Trump’s supporters and conservatives at VA favor keeping the quote unchanged, while some moderate Republicans and Democrats want to see the language become more inclusive.

The issue surfaced nearly a year ago with Allison Jaslow, executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, the nation’s largest advocacy group for post-9/11 veterans. In October, she appealed to VA Secretary David Shulkin but received no response.

Then, late last month, she heard from Kayla Williams, who heads VA’s center for women veterans. Williams, a former Army intelligence specialist who has written a book about the military’s culture of misogyny, told Jaslow that “for many years I — along with other senior VA leaders — have honored the population we serve today by using a modernized version” of Lincoln’s words. “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,” her letter said.

In response, Cashour said Williams did not clear her letter internally before sending it to Jaslow.

Like Shulkin, Williams is a holdover from the Obama administration. She was appointed to a six-year term in 2016.

Many women have reported they do not feel comfortable receiving care at VA facilities. In a study released this month by the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, female veterans reported being catcalled by older veterans and belittled by doctors. The study took more than four years to complete.

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