Lawmakers and advocates have called the Department of Veterans Affairs motto "exclusionary" and "outdated." But VA leaders are refusing to change it, arguing "attempts to rewrite history are dangerous."
Last month, members of Congress called again for VA to change its motto and to halt efforts to etch the motto in bronze and place it at all national veterans' cemeteries.
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.
More than 10 percent of America's veterans and more than 17 percent of its armed forces are women, reflecting a changing military and VA that necessitates a change to VA's motto, lawmakers and advocates said. They suggested 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 leaders pushed back. Acting VA Deputy Secretary Pamela Powers told House Veterans Affairs Chairman Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., in a letter July 7 that the department was not memorializing an "outdated" motto at the cemeteries, but was choosing to memorialize "one of the most important speeches ever delivered by a president to the nation, one that laid out the mission this department continues today."
Takano led fellow House Veterans Affairs Committee Democrats in the letter to Wilkie last month, but it's not only Democrats who have called for the change. Ranking member Rep. Phil Roe last 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.
Powers said "attempts to rewrite history are dangerous" and accused lawmakers of mirroring recent efforts to remove signs and symbols of the Confederacy, slavery and white supremacy across the country.
"While the critical theory that calls for the destruction of our history and institutions is in fashion, this part of our history is not one that should ever suffer revisionist edits or parsing," Powers said.
Lawmakers also 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. Powers did not address the cost to install the markers at all national cemeteries in her letter.
Powers argued that the Constitution uses gender-specific pronouns.
"The concerns you raise might equally suggest that Congress has never evolved beyond the founders' vision and is unwelcoming to everyone other than men and excludes people based on their gender or sexual orientation," she said. "Yet, no one believes this is so."
Powers asserted that there is "no evidence" to show highlighting VA's motto makes veterans feel "unwelcome at VA," arguing that women veteran trust in VA rose 12 percent in the last year. It's unclear where that statistic originated.
In their letter last month, lawmakers wrote:
"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 gender or 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."
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.
“Updating the VA motto is not about ‘rewriting history’-- it is about ensuring we honor all of our nation’s veterans with the proper respect and dignity they deserve," Rice said in a statement to Connecting Vets Tuesday. "This dismissive response is disappointing, but unfortunately, unsurprising as it’s entirely consistent with Secretary Wilkie’s past comments on this issue. The exclusionary language in the current motto does not properly recognize the illustrious and dedicated service of women and LGBTQ veterans, and I will keep working in Congress to pass legislation that will finally change it.”
Takano's office did not immediately respond to requests for comment.