VA Secretary Moves to Block Gender-Neutral Change to Motto

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Robert Wilkie presents a framed keepsake of Lincoln's 2nd Inaugural Address.
VA Secretary Robert Wilkie presents a framed keepsake of Lincoln's 2nd Inaugural Address while on a tour of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum, August 26, 2020. (Image courtesy of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum)

VA Secretary Robert Wilkie went to President Abraham Lincoln's hometown of Springfield, Illinois, Wednesday to double down on his opposition to a gender-neutral update to the agency's iconic motto, taken from Lincoln's second inaugural address.

Wilkie dedicated a plaque at the VA's Camp Butler National Cemetery in Springfield with the existing motto: "To care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan." The VA secretary made his purpose in the visit clear in remarks that followed.

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"The words that brought us here should not be diluted, parsed or canceled," Wilkie said, according to a VA release.

The Department of Veterans Affairs "welcomes all veterans, including the 10% of all veterans who are women," Wilkie said. But, he added, "the words that brought us here ought to be preserved as they were spoken and displayed so every generation understands the origin of America's progress in becoming the most tolerant nation on earth."

The current motto was adopted in 1959, and the words have since been emblazoned at the entrance to VA headquarters in Washington, D.C.

In his Memorial Day remarks this year, Wilkie announced that the motto would go up at more than 140 VA cemeteries nationwide, and the Camp Butler cemetery in Springfield became the first Wednesday. The VA has not yet given a cost estimate for the project.

The organizations Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and the Service Women's Action Network and several lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have argued that the current motto is exclusionary, and fails to recognize that about 10% of veterans and 17% of the armed forces are women.

Advocates for changing the motto have offered up a paraphrase of Lincoln's words: "To care for those who have borne the battle, and for their families and survivors."

Another proposed version would state: "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."

Tom Porter, Government Affairs vice president at IAVA, noted that Wilkie's trip to Springfield coincided with the Defense Department's marking of "Women's Equality Day."

"It seems like he's trying really hard" to make it more difficult for any future change to the motto, Porter said of Wilkie. "It's kind of head-scratching what he's doing."

Changing a few words in the motto would not be a disservice to Lincoln's legacy, Porter said. "It's not canceling Lincoln," Porter said, adding that reverence for the 16th president "should not be used as an excuse to make women feel unwelcome" at the VA.

He speculated that if Lincoln were commander in chief today, he would be in favor of a change to the motto.

The debate over the motto resulted in a heated exchange at a House hearing last month between Acting VA Deputy Secretary Pamela Powers and Rep. Kathleen Rice, a New York Democrat.

In defending the current motto, Powers said at the July 24 hearing of a House Veterans Affairs subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations that the panel had "heard from some women on both sides of the issue," but she was cut off by Rice.

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," she said. "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."

In a statement to Military.com Wednesday, Rice said she found it "disappointing that Secretary Wilkie is ignoring the calls of veterans and lawmakers and proceeding with adding new displays of the VA's outdated motto."

Lincoln's famous second inaugural address was given on March 4, 1865, ahead of the Confederate surrender at Appomattox, Virginia, on April 9, 1865. His fuller statement reads:

"With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan -- to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and a lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations."

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

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