Effort to Change VA Motto Triggers Heated Exchange in Hearing

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The Department of Veterans Affairs' No. 2 official outlined steps aimed at "changing the culture" of the VA to curb sexual harassment of employees and patients, but said she drew the line at changing the agency's iconic motto quoting President Abraham Lincoln.

At a House hearing Wednesday that at times turned combative, Republicans and Democrats pressed Acting Deputy Secretary Pamela Powers on the urgency of dealing with sexual harassment in the aftermath of the murder of Army Spc. Vanessa Guillen at Fort Hood, Texas.

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Powers engaged in testy exchanges with Rep. Kathleen Rice, D-New York, who has sponsored a bill to change the VA's motto, taken from Lincoln's majestic Second Inaugural Address: "To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan."

The word "him" in the motto, emblazoned above the entrance to VA headquarters near the White House, excludes the service of women, Rice said, adding that she was "extremely disappointed" in the refusal of Powers and VA Secretary Robert Wilkie to consider a change.

The message from Powers is that the "service and experience of women didn't matter to you or the VA," Rice charged.

Powers began to respond, saying, "We've heard from some women on both sides of the issue .... [but] what matters more is what happens when our veterans walk through the door ..."

She was cut off by Rice before she could finish her response.

The motto can have the effect of keeping women from seeking health care at the VA, Rice said. "You immediately feel like you don't belong there."

Rice charged that the VA's only rationale in maintaining the motto is that "these are the words of Abraham Lincoln."

"I really hope that you will reconsider your position and stop making reference to words that were spoken many years ago because the reality of our military in 2020 is very different," she said.

The hearing of the House Veterans Affairs subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations was titled "Safety for All: Ending Sexual Harassment in the Department of Veterans Affairs."

Rep. Lauren Underwood, D-Illinois, said, "[The] circumstances surrounding the killing of Spc. Vanessa Guillen are just the most recent reminder that sexual harassment and assault are far too common in the armed forces. … Service members who come home and seek care at the VA should not experience more of the same."

Guillen, a 20-year-old 3rd Cavalry Regiment soldier who disappeared from Fort Hood on April 22, was allegedly murdered by Spc. Aaron Robinson, according to a July 2 criminal complaint filed by the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Western District of Texas.

Robinson later shot and killed himself when confronted by local police. Natalie Khawam, an attorney representing Guillen's family, has alleged that Robinson sexually harassed Guillen before her disappearance.

Powers, a retired Air Force colonel who said she gets health care from the VA, assured Underwood that the issue of sexual harassment at the department "is personal to me."

"I do know it happens," she said of veteran-on-veteran harassment. "Some male veterans do not treat our female veterans well."

Subcommittee members cited a Government Accountability Office report showing that one in four VA employees experienced sexual harassment, either verbal or physical.

The July 14 GAO report found that the VA has "inconsistent and incomplete" policies to prevent and address harassment of employees and veterans.

Powers listed a number of initiatives being undertaken by the VA to curb sexual harassment, including establishment of a centralized reporting to track complaints and follow up on outcomes, but said the department would need more time and money to implement them.

She said it could take until 2024 to implement one of the GAO's recommendations on improving the reporting system by having VA employment opportunity managers, who take complaints on sexual harassment, report directly to the VA's Office of Resolution Management.

The recommendation would involve shifting at least 134 personnel from the Veterans Health Administration to the Office of Resolution Management, "which takes time," Powers added.

Rep. Chris Pappas, D-New Hampshire, the subcommittee's chairman, said he is prepared to introduce legislation to speed up the process.

"I still think we can do better than 2024," Pappas said. "People are waiting, and people are experiencing harassment today. I think four years is too long."

In her testimony to the subcommittee, Cindy Brown Barnes, director of the GAO's Education, Workforce and Income Security team, said, "VA has policies to prevent and address harassment, but some are inconsistent and incomplete.

"For example, the person who oversees personnel functions [e.g., hiring, promotions] is the same person who oversees the complaint process," she said. "This can create a conflict of interest. … In addition, VA doesn't centrally collect information on all complaints, making it harder to direct its resources for preventing and addressing sexual harassment where they're needed most."

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

Related: Soldier Vanessa Guillen's Murder Now a Rallying Cry for Lawmakers

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