Veterans Affairs leaders are changing the department’s mission statement from the current male-only focus to be more welcoming to women veterans, officials announced Thursday.
The current motto — in use by VA and the Veterans Administration since 1959 — is based on an excerpt from President Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address: “To fulfill President Lincoln’s promise ‘to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan’ by serving and honoring the men and women who are America’s veterans.” It’s displayed prominently at about half of all VA hospitals, cemeteries and office buildings across the country.
The new motto will still be based on Lincoln’s words but instead reads: “To fulfill President Lincoln’s promise to care for those who have served in our nation’s military and for their families, caregivers, and survivors.”
The use of male-specific language in the original mission statement has long drawn criticism from veterans advocates who note that women veterans are the fastest growing cohort of the community, expected to make up one in every five living veterans in America by 2040.
VA leaders said the decision was made after interviews with more than 30,000 veterans over the last two years. According to those surveys, the change was supported by the majority of every age group, racial group and gender group.
They noted that the motto change not only includes a wider scope of veterans, but also better emphasizes the role of veterans’ family in their care and benefits.
“Whenever any veteran, family member, caregiver, or survivor walks by a VA facility, we want them to see themselves in the mission statement on the outside of the building,” VA Secretary Denis McDonough said in a statement. “We are here to serve all veterans, their families, caregivers and survivors — and now, our mission statement reflects exactly that.”
The new motto also downplays the role of combat operations in veterans benefits, to reinforce that anyone who serves honorably in the military is granted a wide range of education support and financial assistance.
VA leaders and veterans advocates were scheduled to unveil the new statement during an event at the Military Women’s Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery on Thursday afternoon.
Both McDonough’s predecessor, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie, and former President Donald Trump had adamantly opposed any change in the motto, calling it an attack on history and an attempt to erase Lincoln’s words.
Multiple Democratic lawmakers in recent years have introduced legislation to force a change, without success. Many advocates expected a change early in President Joe Biden’s administration, but VA officials opted for a slower approach, with numerous behind-the-scenes conversations to track the opinions of veterans groups and policy makers.
On Thursday, advocates involved in the fight praised the move.
“For too long, women and LGBTQ+ veterans have been considered ‘invisible veterans’ — feeling inadequately recognized by our fellow Americans,” said Allison Jaslow, CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and herself an Iraq War veteran. “We’re one step closer to changing the way America sees its veterans today, and that’s a damn good reason to celebrate.”
VA staff said that the change to the new motto will take place over the next few months. No information was released on how much updating plaques and displays at department buildings will cost.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.