For decades, the mission statement of Veterans Affairs came from a line from President Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address on March 4, 1865 — “To care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan” — a phrase adopted by the department in 1959.
On Thursday, Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough announced that the department will adopt a modern-day statement that reflects the generational changes among veterans — women, for one, became eligible to serve in 1948, and the old mission statement does not represent them.
The new statement will be: “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.” It presents a slight, gender-neutral revision of Lincoln’s original remarks.
The change in language comes after years of demands from advocates who argued that the agency’s old mission statement only acknowledged men’s service in the U.S. military forces, and failed to reflect the experiences of veterans’ families, caretakers and their survivors.
McDonough announced the change at a news conference held at the Military Women’s Memorial in Arlington’s National Cemetery, where he was joined by female veterans. The secretary noted that the change comes during Women’s History Month. Female veterans, he said, “serve their country honorably and admirably, but may not have felt welcomed as they walked through the doors of VA.”
“So today, we take a step forward, one step, and there’s many, many more to go,” McDonough said. “Today, we’re bringing our mission statement into the moment, embracing the fullest meaning of President Lincoln’s sentiments, promise and unquenchable passion.”
Patriotism and courage, McDonough added, “are not constrained by gender.” Over 2 million women have “bravely served our country in uniform,” he said, facing adversity and battles “in and out of uniform for a stronger America, for equality, opportunity, inclusion, a brighter and better future for all Americans.”
Advocates have long called for the department to make its mission more inclusive of women and nonbinary veterans, but efforts to do so stalled under former president Donald Trump’s Veterans Affairs secretary, Robert Wilkie, who claimed that changing the language would amount to an erasure of history.
“The words that brought us here should not be diluted, parsed or canceled,” Wilkie said in August 2020.
And while Wilkie was defensive of the mission statement’s historical origin, the portion adopted by VA is not the most memorable line in Lincoln’s speech. That is: “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.”
Kaitlynne Yancy, the government affairs associate director at Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, noted that the change is necessary to make VA more accessible to “any veteran that does not identify as a cisgender male.”
VA estimates that the words are displayed outside roughly 50 percent of its facilities nationwide, and Yancy said the change will make it so “every person that walks through the front doors of the VA facility feels welcome from that first interaction.” The agency said the new language will replace the previous version in these facilities over the coming months.
Yancy said she understood why some may be made uncomfortable by the change, noting that these are Lincoln’s words, but she noted that the military Lincoln was talking about back then does not “fully represent the military that we have right now.”
Women, she noted, are the fastest-growing group of veterans. According to statistics from VA, the department serves more than 600,000 women.
In a statement Thursday, VA said it surveyed roughly 30,000 veterans about the change in mission statement. The new language, the agency said, reflects “that VA serves all of the heroes who have served our country, regardless of their race, gender, background, sexual orientation, religion, zip code or identity.”
A proposal that received bipartisan support in the House three years ago to update the mission statement, introduced by Rep. Brian Mast (R-Fla.) and then-Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-N.Y.), would have changed the mission statement to: “To fulfill President Lincoln’s promise to care for those ‘who shall have borne the battle’ and for their families, caregivers, and survivors.” The measure, however, failed in the Senate.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), who’s served on the Senate Armed Services Committee and who has been at the forefront of the fight against sexual assault in the military, said in a statement on Thursday that VA’s decision to update the language is a step in the right direction. Gillibrand championed the congressional attempts to change the mission statement.
“Women have served in our armed forces and given their lives to defend our nation since the founding of the country, and the motto of the VA must honor the courage of all Americans who have fought for our freedom,” she said. “I applaud the VA for choosing a new motto that reflects the diversity of our armed forces.”