VA Secretary redoubles support of disputed motto with new signs for national cemeteries

Abbie Bennett
August 27, 2020 - 1:58 pm
An excerpt from President Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural address, part of which would eventually become the motto of the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Department of Veterans Affairs

The Department of Veterans Affairs motto, or mission statement, is a quote from President Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural address 155 years ago. But in recent years, some have called it exclusionary. Now, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie, who has repeatedly defended the motto, is redoubling his support, unveiling new signs planned to be installed at veterans cemeteries nationwide.

On Wednesday, Wilkie dedicated a permanent memorial at Camp Butler National Cemetery in Lincoln's home of Springfield, Illinois, with a bronze plaque featuring a longer quote from the address which contains VA's motto, alongside an "interpretive sign" explaining how the president's words became VA's mission statement.

In his Memorial Day message this year, Wilkie announced plans to install new bronze plaques engraved with the motto at all national veterans cemeteries later this year. 

"Those words are the basis of our VA mission, to care for our veterans and their families," Wilkie said. "That's why, later this year, we will memorialize -- in bronze -- Lincoln's charge to the nation in all of our VA cemeteries."

But those plans seem to have changed somewhat. 

When asked about the timeline and cost for installing the plaques at all 145 of the national veterans cemeteries across the country managed by the department, VA Press Secretary Christina Noel said "a plaque is only being placed at Camp Butler National Cemetery, while VA intends to install the interpretive signs at all other national cemeteries in its system this fall and winter." 

In June, lawmakers called for VA to halt plans to install the bronze markers.

The interpretive sign VA plans to install at all national veterans cemeteries explaining how a Lincoln quote because the department's motto.
Department of Veterans Affairs

In a statement announcing the new signage, Wilkie addressed accusations that the motto is exclusionary to women veterans, though advocates and lawmakers have said it also excludes LGBTQ veterans.

“Today’s VA welcomes all veterans, including the 10% of all veterans who are women," he said. "The words that brought us here should not to be diluted, parsed or canceled. 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.”

Lincoln's longer quote now featured on the plaque at the Camp Butler cemetery 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."

VA's motto is "To care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan." 

More than 10 percent of America's veterans and more than 17 percent of its armed forces are women, reflecting a changing military and VA that necessitates a change to VA's motto to help all veterans feel welcome, lawmakers and advocates said. They suggested an alternative, more inclusive motto that echoes Lincoln's words: "To care for those who shall have borne the battle, and for their families, caregivers and survivors." 

Increasingly, changing the motto garnered bipartisan support in Congress. Last month, the Honoring All Veterans Act, sponsored by Reps. Kathleen Rice, D-N.Y., and Jackie Speier, D-Calif., which would codify a motto change, passed with unanimous support from Republicans and Democrats on the committee.

House Veterans Affairs Ranking member Phil Roe of Tennessee led fellow Republican lawmakers in support of the change. 

"This is easy for me," he said. "All you have to do is change one word. I support this bill in recognition of the millions of women who have raised their right hands in service throughout the history of this great country, in gratitude for their bravery."

But VA leaders refused to change it, arguing that it was tantamount to rewriting history. 

“It is incredibly disappointing that Secretary Wilkie is ignoring the calls of veterans and lawmakers and proceeding with adding new displays of the VA’s outdated motto," Rice said in a statement to Connecting Vets on Thursday. "Last month, the House Veterans Affairs Committee passed my bipartisan bill, the Honoring All Veterans Act, which would update the VA motto to be more inclusive of women and LGBTQ veterans and surviving family members. This legislation must be signed into law so the military service of all veterans is finally recognized properly by the agency which exists to serve them.”

In a tense exchange during a July House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing, Rice told Acting VA Deputy Secretary Pamela Powers that the motto could discourage women from seeking care at VA. 

"You immediately feel like you don't belong there," Rice 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."

Lawmakers urge VA Sec to replace controversial Veterans Affairs motto, halt plans for plaques

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Contentious VA motto will be 'memorialized' in bronze at all national veterans cemeteries, Secretary announces

Reach Abbie Bennett: or @AbbieRBennett.

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