Why a Small Motto Change Could Have a Big Impact on Female Veterans' Health

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The sign with the  Department of Veterans Affairs motto is seen in Washington, D.C.
The sign with the Department of Veterans Affairs motto is seen in Washington, D.C. (Department of Veterans Affairs)

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I enlisted in the Army in 2003, spending four years as a medic, including a 12-month deployment to Iraq. My body and mind paid the price and, when I separated from the service in 2007, I had both seen and unseen injuries that I wouldn't share with a Department of Veterans Affairs health care provider for years. I waited for many reasons, but one lives in a moment.

When I left the military, I met with a psychologist who told me, "You do not deserve care for your mental health. You are a woman."

I stared at the Ansel Adams photograph behind his head. It was a black and white waterfall. My stepmom had one just like it.

"OK, thank you" was all I said.

That psychologist's attitude, denigrating my service because of my gender, was emblematic of broader issues I would see in medical care, an entire system for veterans that didn't acknowledge the role women had played fighting for our country.

Thirteen years later, I finally said more. This act of acknowledging my wounds, holding my country accountable for my care and knowing that I earned the care given, healed me in ways I can't fully describe.

So, when I read an article describing a positive step the VA has taken to ensure that women veterans access the care they have earned, I felt a moment of validation.

The step, updating the VA's mission statement to remove male pronouns, "him" and "his," is a small move toward inclusivity that will hopefully bring positive results.

The change made me hopeful that other women would not wait to access the VA health care they earned.

And then I thought: I should comment on this, I should show my support. But what to write? How to express my feelings? I turned to previous comments for inspiration.

And there, the debate raged on.

My head shook from side to side as I scrolled through comment after comment of vitriol from my professional network on LinkedIn.

The biggest arguments fell into three categories. The cost of the update, the possible negative impact on male veterans, and that purposefully including women excludes men.

The new mission statement will be displayed on plaques in every VA facility in the coming months, and updating them will have a dollar value, although it’s unlikely to be a large figure for a multibillion-dollar agency.

But this line of thinking does not question what it would cost to keep the old mission statement.

The original read, "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."

For women veterans, seeing this mission statement prominently displayed where we are meant to seek care is a deterrent. It tells us we are bystanders in battle.

I do not know the dollar cost of that. But I do know the human cost.

Just last week, I spoke to a female veteran who was having problems with her doctor and her health was suffering. She was frustrated and discouraged.

I asked, "Why don't you go to the VA?"

Her answer was simple: "I didn't know I could."

And this is the problem.

Anything -- any words, statements, preconceived notions -- that keeps a veteran from accessing care costs this country. It breaks down the very foundation we were built on and our commitment to care for those who serve.

As for the negative impacts on male veterans, let me make a simple statement.

Stop it.

I am not sure where this idea comes from amongst veterans that there is only one pie, and we are all fighting for a piece of it. It is not true.

My care will not replace your care. I am not taking a piece of your pie. I don't want your pie; moreover, I don't need your pie. I need cake.

What I mean is, women's health care looks substantially different from men's health care. The resources we are seeking are separate and outside of what men are seeking. But having a robust VA health care system that is equipped to handle a large variety of issues benefits everyone, including he, his and him.

That last argument, that purposefully including women excludes men, is one that is raised around a lot of topics.

Please consider that men are the default. They are the known, the guaranteed.

In this instance, no one questioned men's right to access VA health care.

No one ever told a man that being a man excluded him. No mission statement ever called into question the value of the service of men. No one ever weighed men's right to the knowledge of care against the cost of updating words.

This will not change. Men will be included, as they have always been included.

This debate, like all debates around women's health, puts us in the position of fighting to justify why we deserve what men are freely given.

The new mission statement, "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," is just that, a statement.

There is no debate.

It is also a call to action for women veterans: Ignore the comments and have your cake instead.

-- Andrea Renee Sandoval Rathbun is a disabled combat veteran and an active-duty military spouse. She resides outside of Fort Polk, Louisiana, by way of Albuquerque, New Mexico.

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