Every single day, one of the 2.2 million women veterans in our country walks into her local Veterans Affairs (VA) hospital. When she enters the building, she will likely be met with a sign on the door that reads: “To care for him who shall have borne the battle, and his widow and his orphan,” the motto of the VA. Perhaps she’ll even think twice about going in.
When she enters, the woman vet might also encounter a receptionist who will instinctively ask where her husband is, assuming she’s a wife of a veteran — not a patient. Or she’ll be one of the many women referred to as “mister” when her appointment time comes up. How ironic, she probably thinks. This is the agency tasked with taking care of all our veterans, and yet the fastest growing segment of the veteran population — women — seems to be completely overlooked.
Women veterans are often referred to as “invisible veterans,” which sadly extends to our own VA. In Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America’s (IAVA) most recent member survey, only 27 percent of women veterans said they feel the public respects their service. Seventy percent do not feel the VA adequately provides women veteran program managers, the staff whose primary role is to help guide women veterans through VA care. And a mere 22 percent rated VA’s support for women veterans as good or better.
Until American culture and the culture within the VA better recognize women veterans, we can’t truly address our unique needs. And, I’m not just talking about fixing the fact that one third of VA health centers don’t have a gynecologist. The reality for women veterans is even more dire than most people would imagine. Women veterans are dying by suicide at 250 percent the rate of civilian women. They are two to four times more likely to be homeless than non-veteran women. And, sadly, one out of every four women receiving care at the VA say they’ve experienced military sexual trauma.
That’s why IAVA, the leading post-9/11 veterans organization, launched She Who Borne the Battle, a groundbreaking campaign to recognize and support women veterans. In honor of Deborah Sampson, a woman who disguised herself as a man in order to fight in the Revolutionary War, IAVA partnered with bipartisan members of Congress on the Deborah Sampson Act to address gender disparities at the VA and ensure women veterans get the care they need. The campaign importantly also makes a bold request of the VA — to finally change its outdated and exclusionary motto to reflect the fact that women are indeed veterans, too.
By excluding women, the VA’s motto effectively erases the contributions by women in the military, and communicates to women veterans that they are unwelcome outsiders. It sets a tone from the top that trickles down into the care and services the VA provides to women; to improve support for women veterans, VA must prove their commitment to create a culture that acknowledges and respects the service and commitment of women veterans by changing the motto.
Other military institutions have recognized the power of culture and made significant strides toward crediting women service members by replacing their cultural signifiers — slogans, songs, and titles — with gender-inclusive alternatives. In 2003, after an investigation into the culture of sexual assault and hostility toward women at the Air Force Academy, the academy took down its famous and beloved “Bring Me Men” sign and replaced it with a gender-inclusive motto. And, the Air Force Academy did not evolve alone. The Naval Academy and West Point both revised the lyrics of their traditional songs that referenced “men” and “sons” out of respect for the women now filling the ranks of these cherished institutions. In 2016, then-Navy Secretary Ray Mabus also launched an effort to update gendered occupational titles in order to reflect the integration of women into combat, prompting the Marines to make 19 occupational titles using “men” to be gender neutral.
Within the Deborah Sampson Act is a provision that expresses the sense of Congress that the VA’s motto should be more inclusive. But we don’t need Congress to act to change the VA motto. In 1959, when the head of the Veterans Administration instituted the VA motto, he did so unilaterally. Secretary David ShulkinDavid Jonathon ShulkinBiden's nominee for VA secretary isn't a veteran — does it matter? The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Mastercard - Congress slogs toward COVID-19 relief, omnibus deal A crisis that unites veterans MORE has the authority to make this change, which would mark a powerful commitment from VA leadership to improve a culture to one that fully respects the service of and will subsequently best support our nation’s women veterans.
No veteran should feel unwelcome at the VA. This Veterans Day, we call on the VA to recognize she who borne the battle, too.
Allison Jaslow is Executive Director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), the leading nonprofit, nonpartisan organization representing post-9/11 veterans and their families. She is a former Army captain who served two combat deployments in Iraq, from 2004-05 and 2007-08.