The House Veterans Affairs Committee’s ranking Republican has thrown his support behind an effort to make the Department of Veterans Affairs‘ mission statement more inclusive by shedding its masculine pronouns and reference to widows.
Rep. Phil Roe of Tennessee, former chairman of the committee, said Wednesday he wants to “associate himself” with the push to change the motto from “To care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan” to “To care for those who have borne the battle, and for their families and survivors.”
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The original words were drawn from President Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address in 1865.
“We certainly don’t want to change what Abraham Lincoln said, but it’s time in the 21st century to change it to ‘those who have borne the battle,” which would include all our veterans whomever they may be,” Roe said during a hearing of the House Veterans Affairs health subcommittee.
Roe’s comments came in response to Rep. Julia Brownley, D-California, who raised the issue after a VA official closed his congressional testimony using the current motto.
Brownley said Lincoln’s words were a “very poignant statement in 1865” and have served as a “vivid reminder of the VA’s mission in many, many years.”
But, she added, it excludes female veterans.
“We know our women service members are very visible when they are in the military but, once they leave and become one of our nation’s veterans, they become invisible. That needs to change,” said Brownley, chairwoman of the Women Veterans Task Force.
For the past two Congresses, Rep. Kathleen Rice, D-New York, has introduced bills to change the motto, but they have never made it out of committee.
The VA has frequently used the newer version during official ceremonies and in correspondence, and VA Secretary Robert Wilkie invoked it during a hearing Wednesday before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.
“Today, we are rededicated to Lincoln’s vision — taking care of all who have borne the battle and their families,” he said.
The renewed calls for change follow a week of unrest nationwide over the killing of a handcuffed suspect, George Floyd, by Minneapolis police officers, and demands for racial equality.
This week, Wilkie also announced that the department would remove the headstones of three German prisoners of war from two VA cemeteries. The headstones carry symbols of the German Army and Nazi Party.
Wilkie initially opposed the move, saying that they were a reminder of the horrors that Nazi Germany waged, and ordered a review of options for preserving the grave markers. On Monday, however, he reversed course, saying the headstones are “understandably upsetting to our veterans,” and will be replaced.
“Americans must always remember the horror of the Nazi regime and why so many Americans sacrificed so much to free the world from its reign of terror,” Wilkie said.
VA officials have maintained that the employment of Lincoln’s quote as the department mission statement assumes that the use of “him” assumes “gender neutrality in historical usage and context.”
An annual survey of members of the group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America released in early March showed that most respondents favored the change or had no opinion on it. Of the 4,600 members polled, 43% “strongly” or “somewhat” supported the change, while 32 percent “strongly” or “somewhat” opposed it.
Another 25 percent were neutral on the issue.
But in a nod to the protests that are in their seventh day nationwide, Roe, an Army veteran, said it’s time for change.
“The comments are very appropriate for today,” he said, referring to Brownley’s statement.
— Patricia Kime can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.
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