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VA disregards request to make agency motto gender-neutral

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA)

The Department of Veterans Affairs won’t pursue a change to its longtime motto despite complaints that it excludes women and symbolizes barriers for female veterans within the VA health care system.

The VA has had the same motto for 59 years: “To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan.” The quote came from Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address in 1865, the same year that he created the first-ever government institution for volunteer soldiers.

Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America called on VA Secretary David Shulkin in November to change the motto, describing it as sexist and outdated. The VA responded Jan. 26 that the motto was representative of “the heart of our noble mission.”

IAVA Executive Director Allison Jaslow felt the response brushed off her group’s request and was dismissive of larger, cultural obstacles for women veterans.

“They’re missing the point that women don’t feel comfortable at the VA,” she said. “We want to be respected and appreciated as much as male veterans are, and the motto is symbolic of overall challenges.”

Plaques inscribed with Lincoln’s quote now flank the entrance to VA headquarters in Washington, D.C., and the quote is visible in many VA facilities throughout the nation.

Kayla Williams, director of the VA Center for Women Veterans, responded to pleas from IAVA to change the motto. She said VA leaders have gradually and unofficially been using an altered version of the quote: “To care for those who shall have borne the battle and their families and survivors.”

“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,” Williams wrote in a letter to Jaslow. “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 acknowledgement of today’s veteran population.”

Gradual change – for the motto and for broader barriers to VA services – isn’t enough, Jaslow argued.

“I understand the need for incremental change in some instances, but not when there’s such a disparity,” she said.

For the past year, IAVA has appealed to Congress for more funding and staff directed specifically toward services for women veterans. A group of lawmakers introduced a bill last March, but it hasn’t been taken up by a congressional committee. Jaslow said there’s a lot of “head nodding” on the issue but little action.

In Williams’ letter to Jaslow, she emphasized improvements the VA has made regarding care for women veterans. About 500,000 women veterans use VA health care, and they get screened for cervical cancer and breast cancer at higher rates than women do in the private sector or the Department of Defense. They also have access to prenatal and maternity care.

Williams noted each VA hospital has a military sexual trauma coordinator and at least one primary care provider for women’s health.

Jaslow acknowledged once women veterans get into the VA, they generally receive good care. The problem, she said, is making women veterans feel comfortable enough to seek VA treatment.

When Jaslow used the VA in 2008, veterans would assume she was a nurse and ask for directions, she said. Army Reserve veteran Kate Hoit, who returned from Iraq in 2005 and advocated for legislation alongside Jaslow, has said she was also made to feel like she didn’t quite belong.

Similar stories were included in a report published this week by the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine – the result of a 4 ½-year study of VA mental health services completed by an 18-member committee. The committee looked specifically at barriers to mental health care for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.

Committee members conducted site visits to VA facilities in 2015. In Cleveland, one female veteran told them that VA employees assumed she was a spouse. Another veteran said VA workers didn’t believe she was a combat veteran. Many female veterans also experienced cat-calls in VA facilities, which was particularly unsettling for women suffering from military sexual trauma, according to the report.

“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 argued that addressing those barriers starts at the top – with the VA motto.

There’s precedent for the change, she said. In 2004, the Air Force Academy replaced its “Bring Me Men” sign on its stone entrance with “Integrity First. Service Before Self. Excellence in All We Do.” The original sign had been in place since 1964.

Also in 2004, the U.S. Naval Academy amended gender-specific lyrics in its school song. The U.S. Military Academy at West Point did the same in 2008.

In 2016, the Navy and Marine Corps introduced gender-neutral job titles.

“I get it. The VA was designed for a male population, and culture change is hard,” Jaslow said. “But we’re talking 16 years we’ve been at war in Afghanistan. Women veterans are still feeling invisible and articulating they don’t feel comfortable at the VA. At what point are we going to get serious about addressing this?”

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