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Two House lawmakers launch new effort to make VA motto gender inclusive

President Donald J. Trump stands in the House of Representatives chamber delivering his State of the Union address, Joined by Vice President Mike Pence and House Speaker Paul Ryan, on Jan. 30, 2018. (D. Myles Cullen/White House)

A pair of House lawmakers introduced legislation Friday to alter the Department of Veterans Affairs motto to be more inclusive of veterans’ families and women who have served.

The VA motto, which has been the same for nearly 60 years, is a quote from 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.”

Reps. Kathleen Rice, D-N.Y., and Brian Mast, R-Fla., want 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.”

A staffer for Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., said the senator intends to introduced a similar bill in the upper chamber in the coming weeks.

The lawmakers contend the current VA motto isn’t representative of a growing population of women veterans. According to VA statistics, women make up nearly 12 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.

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“The brave women who have worn our nation’s uniform and their families deserve to be equally embraced by the motto of the very agency meant to support them,” Rice said in a statement. “This bill will finally give women veterans the recognition they deserve for their service and sacrifice – it’s long overdue and anything less is unacceptable.”

In June, Rice attempted to attach the measure to an appropriations bill. Republican leadership prevented lawmakers from debating and voting on it.

Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America began an effort last year to change the motto. In January, the VA rejected the idea, saying it would continue to use Lincoln’s quote as is.

The change is about more than “political correctness,” said Allison Jaslow, former executive director of IAVA, which touts 400,000 members. It symbolizes barriers for women veterans within the VA health care system, she argued.

“There’s no doubt that female veterans face unique challenges and health care needs that the VA has not yet been able to successfully address. Fixing this critical failure starts at the top and changing the mission statement is a needed first step,” said Mast, who is an Army veteran.

The National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine reported in February that women veterans are sometimes dissuaded from pursuing VA treatment because they were mistaken for veterans’ spouses or not believed to be combat veterans. Some women veterans also experienced cat-calls in VA facilities, which was particularly unsettling for women suffering from military sexual trauma, according to the report.

“The tone of every organization is set at the top,” Jaslow said in a statement. “With its motto, the [VA] is telling women veterans and survivors of fallen women servicemembers that they aren’t seen. That they don’t matter.”

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The new legislation would require VA Secretary Robert Wilkie to update agency websites with the new motto within 30 days. Wilkie would then have to submit a timeline to Congress for when the change would be taken system-wide.

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

Not all women veterans feel the same about the motto. Kayda Keleher, a Marine Corps veteran who works with the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said she believes the time and resources would be better spent pushing for better access to gender-specific health care at the VA.

“While the cause is noteworthy, the actual implementation will cost money,” Keleher wrote last year for the military news website Task & Purpose. “Not pennies, not quarters – but most likely millions in taxpayer dollars. The cost of updating every pamphlet, every website, every letter head, every ‘Welcome to VA’ sign, and the infrastructure of every chiseled motto will financially add up quicker than some may think.”

While Rice and Mast push for the motto change in Congress, a trio of veterans organizations are still appealing directly to the VA.

In October, IAVA, along with Service Women’s Action Network and NYC Veterans Alliance, submitted a petition to the VA, urging the agency to make the change. The groups are being represented by the Veterans Legal Service Clinic at Yale Law School.

Under the federal Administrative Procedure Act, the VA is required to consider the proposal and issue a formal response with an explanation of its decision.

“Because of this petition, the VA will now have to change their exclusionary, outdated motto or give a reasoned explanation for why it refuses to do so,” said Chelsea Shaffer of the Veterans Legal Services Clinic. “If the VA refuses to enact the proposed change, then its denial is subject to judicial review.”

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© 2018 the Stars and Stripes

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