By Sarah Purtill
Impunity Watch Reporter, North America

WASHINGTON, D.C., USA – A quote from America’s 16th President currently stands as the motto for Veterans Affairs. In his second Inaugural Address, Abraham Lincoln stated, “To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan.” The language of this quote has been under fire by many who believe it is outdated and/or sexist. IAVA Executive Director Allison Jaslow wrote a strongly worded letter in October of 2017. The letter went unanswered by VA Secretary David Shulkin. Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America also called on VA Secretary David Shulkin in November to change the motto.

For the last 59 years, the VA motto has been a quote from President Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. Photo Courtesy of Stars and Stripes/ Veterans Affairs.

Despite the outcry for change, a spokesperson for Secretary Shulkin’s office stated that the VA will continue to use it’s motto. “[The] VA is proud of Lincoln’s words as a historic tribute to all Veterans, including women Veterans, whose service and sacrifice inspires us all,” Secretary Shulkin’s spokesperson said. In response to the spokesperson,  Jaslow said, “They’re missing the point — that women don’t feel comfortable at the VA. That action enshrined not only a motto, but a culture too that often renders women veterans invisible at the agency, even to this day. Every day that the VA preserves this motto, it ignores and obscures the needs of far too many women veterans.”

There are many who think the VA has bigger problems to deal with right now rather than the currentness of the motto. Some of those problems include the long wait time for appointments and various scandals. Some of these scandals are centered around women. One such scandal was a Facebook group of over 30,000 members sharing pictures of nude female service members without their consent.

A study was also recently posted by the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine which stated that many female combat veterans said that they weren’t believed about their war experience and often belittled by VA doctors. The study was conducted over 4 and a half years and focused on VA mental health services.

The director of the VA Center for Women Veterans, Kayla Williams, responded to the pleas from IAVA to change the motto. She unofficially has been using a modified version of the motto which states, “To care for those who shall have borne the battle and their families and survivors.”

“Recognizing that they can seem exclusionary to some women veterans, for many years I – along with other senior VA leaders – have honored the population we serve today by using a modernized version,” Williams said to Jaslow in a letter. “This symbolic update, which we are continuing to gradually incorporate alongside the original in digital and print materials, as well as spoken remarks, is an important acknowledgement of today’s veteran population.”

Jaslow calls for more change and for that change to be official. “I get it. The VA was designed for a male population, and culture change is hard,” Jaslow said. “But we’re talking 16 years we’ve been at war in Afghanistan. Women veterans are still feeling invisible and articulating they don’t feel comfortable at the VA. At what point are we going to get serious about addressing this?”

For more information, please see:

Washington Post – Is the VA Motto Outdated and Sexist? The Head of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Group Thinks So – 6 February 2018

Stars and Stripes – VA Disregards Request to Make Agency Motto Gender Neutral – 2 February 2018

Author: Sarah Louise Purtill

is a second-year law student at Syracuse University College of Law (SUCOL). In addition to being an Impunity Watch News Reporter, she is an Associate Editor for the Syracuse Journal of International Law and Commerce. Sarah is the Media Managing Editor for Syracuse Law and Civic Engagement Forum as well as the Treasurer for Phi Alpha Delta Law Fraternity’s Carmody Chapter at SUCOL. She is also serving her second term as a Class Senator for the Student Bar Association at SUCOL. Sarah is a student attorney at the Elder and Health Law Clinic of SUCOL. Sarah graduated from John Jay College of Criminal Justice’s Honors Program in June of 2016 with a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science and a Minor in History. Sarah expects to graduate with her Juris Doctor from SUCOL in May of 2019.