VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said when he was a child “it was unthinkable” to see a woman wearing the coveted maroon beret that soldiers assigned to airborne units wear, in response to a question from Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-N.Y.) during a hearing before the House Committee on Veterans Affairs' on Wednesday.
“It’s not unthinkable anymore, because of the changes in the military culture,” he said.
“VA is moved to change with that culture,” said Wilkie. “The young Americans who serve today are not the veterans who served with my father in Vietnam. We have a diverse and integrated military, and those changes are bleeding over to VA.”
He added it’s his goal that the agency he leads is the “most welcoming as possible.”
But could the department do more? Rice thinks it starts with the language the department uses.
“We often concentrate solely on health care, but there are other non-health care related issues that affect women veterans, which includes access to benefits,” said Rice.
One barrier Rice pointed to is the VA’s motto, which reads “To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan” a line that has origins in President Abraham Lincolns second inaugural address.
The gendered language, according to Rice, tells women they “are made to feel they don’t belong at the VA” as staff assumes women there are spouses of a veteran, and not veterans themselves.
There’s an effort to change the motto, including a campaign by Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, She who Borne the Battle, which calls on the VA to have a “more inclusive” motto.
But Wilkie isn’t looking to change it.
“I’m not arrogant enough to say I want to change Abraham Lincoln’s words,” he said at a House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing in February.
At the time, he said the motto isn’t meant to mean the agency he leads is not committed to equality of service.
But Rice said that’s not good enough and is still calling on Wilkie to reconsider.
“You have testified on more than one occasion that the VA is working to increase the trust of women veterans in the VA; however, there still remain cultural barriers at many, not all, but many VA facilities,” said Rice.
“It’s not just what you do internally, once a woman begins to wear the uniform of this great country of ours, which over 2 million women have, it’s what you say and what you hold out as a model of this great agency.”
Wilkie pointed to the 84 percent of women veterans who say they trust the VA and are happy with the care they are getting, according to VA satisfaction surveys, as a symbol that VA’s culture is dedicated to providing equitable service.