An influential group of young veterans is challenging the Department of Veterans Affairs to change its mission statement, arguing the decades-old mantra diminishes the contributions of women service members.
The Department's mission statement is "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."
The quote embedded in the VA's mission statement dates back to President Lincoln's second inaugural address, delivered in 1865. As president, Lincoln created the first-ever government institution dedicated to the needs of volunteer soldiers who had been honorably discharged. In the following decades, the government expanded its services to veterans of all American wars and established today's system of veterans' hospitals. But the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) says enshrining the 16th president's words in the VA's mission statement discounts women service members, a rapidly growing segment of the population.
"The Department still fails to fully recognize and support women veterans," Allison Jaslow, Executive Director of the IAVA, wrote in a letter sent to VA Secretary David Shulkin on Tuesday. "Nowhere is this failure clearer than in the Department's continued use of an exclusionary motto."
The Air Force Academy, the Naval Academy, and West Point have made changes to their signs, slogans, and song lyrics in the last 15 years to move away from male-centric pronouns. The portion of Lincoln's quote in the VA mission statement is inscribed on a plaque that has been on display at the agency's Washington, D.C. headquarters since 1959, according to the IAVA.
The organization says that gendered pronouns are exclusionary toward the increasing number of women serving in the U.S. armed forces. More than 345,000 women have served overseas in the years since 9/11, according to the IAVA, which has launched a campaign to recognize women veterans and improve services for them and their families upon their return.
"The VA’s continued use of its sexist motto symbolizes the agency’s resistance to gender equity, and perpetuates a hostile and unequal environment for women veterans," Jaslow writes.
The organization is raising its voice ahead of Veterans Day on Nov. 11. The new administration revived Lincoln's quote by putting it on an annual poster issued by the VA to publicize the holiday. In previous years, the Department had almost exclusively chosen the tagline "Honoring All Who Served," occasionally alongside the words "Valor, Courage, Sacrifice;" "Honor, Courage, Loyalty" and "Defending Liberty and Freedom."
A recent survey by the IAVA shows a perceived disconnect between women veterans, the public, and the VA workforce. Just over a quarter of those polled think the public treats them with respect, and less than half said VA employees treat them with respect. Only 22 percent assessed the support provided to them by the VA as "good or better."
The VA system, which provides health care and services to veterans, has been struggling to keep up with the demands placed on it by an influx of veterans returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; a growing number of them, like Jaslow, are women. According to The Washington Post, prenatal care is outsourced, full-time gynecologists are lacking, and some facilities don't offer mammograms.
Though the VA's mission statement has remained unchanged for decades, the IAVA is raising the issue this year in line with its campaign focused on the needs of women veterans. The organization is also pushing for improved health care and health services through the Deborah Sampson Act, which would increase peer-to-peer counseling, access to legal services, and enhanced maternity care.
"The culture at the VA has been a problem and we feel the agency has been too slow to address them fully," an IAVA spokesperson tells Bustle.
Bustle has reached out to the Department of Veterans Affairs after hours for comment.