Lawmakers are calling for Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie to replace what they call an "outdated" and "exclusionary" VA motto and halt plans to memorialize it in bronze at all national veteran cemeteries across the country.
Democrats on the House Veterans Affairs Committee, led by Chairman Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., and Women Veterans Task Force Chair Rep. Julia Brownley, D-Calif., sent a letter to Wilkie Thursday criticizing his recent decision to place plaques in all VA cemeteries with the motto advocates, women veterans and some lawmakers have for years argued should be changed.
That motto quotes 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."
While the lawmakers said they agreed the "original spirit" of Lincoln's words were inclusive, they argued that it was time to alter the motto slightly to reflect a more diverse veteran population.
"Your announcement sends a troubling message to millions of veterans and their families that even in death they are unwelcome at VA," lawmakers wrote. "In a divisive time in America, we encourage you to create a VA culture that is welcoming. You can begin by changing VA's motto to reflect dedicated service to every veteran, regardless of genderor sexual orientation ... Today, these words exclude millions of veterans and families that VA is obligated to serve, such as women veterans, LGBTQ+ veterans and caregivers."
Now, more than 10 percent of America's veterans and more than 17 percent of its armed forces are women. Wilkie told lawmakers in recent weeks that about 42 percent of women veterans eligible for VA care are now enrolled.
Lawmakers and advocates suggest an alternative, more inclusive motto that echoes Lincoln's words: "To care for those who shall have borne the battle, and for their families, caregivers and survivors."
But VA has resisted changing the motto, repeatedly arguing that it would be costly to alter and citing historical significance, though officials often have used an updated version. Wilkie himself altered it in Congressional testimony earlier this month in the Senate.
"Today we are rededicated to Lincoln's vision -- taking care of all who have borne the battle and their families," he said.
VA Press Secretary Christina Noel previously told Connecting Vets VA is not concerned that the motto for the new plaques is not gender-neutral.
"This was a direct quote from President Lincoln's second inaugural address and is verbatim," Noel said. "The speech formed the basis of VA's subsequent creation and is part of our recognized mission. Of course today, our mission is focused more broadly on the men and women veterans we treat in our medical facilities, provide earned benefits and inter in our national cemeteries and their families."
Noel also noted that the quote is etched in stone on the Lincoln Memorial.
It's not only Democrats who have called for the motto to be changed. House Veterans Affairs Committee ranking member Rep. Phil Roe earlier this month said he believed it was "very appropriate" to consider an update to make the motto more inclusive.
"We certainly don't want to change what 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," he said.
Perhaps one of the most vocal proponents of changing the motto has been Rep. Kathleen Rice, D-N.Y., who also serves on the committee. For the past two Congresses, she has introduced legislation to alter the motto, but they have never made it out of committee to the floor.
Lawmakers further criticized the decision to purchase and install the plaques themselves.
"Given the economic and healthcare crisis facing this country, it is disappointing that you would use taxpayer funds on this unnecessary expense," they wrote. VA so far has refused to provide an estimate for how much the project will cost.
As time goes on, lawmakers said, the population VA serves will only become more diverse.
"You now have the opportunity to make a decision that comports with your leadership of an organization that must serve all veterans," they said.
Takano told Connecting Vets that when he became chairman of the House VA committee, he vowed "to help prepare VA for more women, LGBTQ, and minority veterans accessing VA care and benefits than ever before -- that starts by recognizing the service of all of our veterans. By changing its exclusionary motto, VA has a clear opportunity to show millions of women veterans, LGBTQ veterans, and their caregivers that they matter. We don’t need bronze plaques at every VA cemetery, we need VA to serve and honor all veterans regardless of gender or sexual orientation -- its motto should reflect that.”