It's time for VA to consider a new motto

It's time for VA to consider a new motto

This year has brought with it a strong reckoning for many of our nation's popular historical figures and traditions. 

As stated recently in The Atlantic: "U.S. history is often taught and popularly understood through the eyes of its great men, who are seen as either heroic or tragic figures in a global struggle for human freedom . . . . Viewed from the perspective of those historically denied the rights enumerated in America's founding documents, the story of the country's great men [and women] necessarily looks very different."

The motto of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) falls squarely into this category. 

ADVERTISEMENT

Currently, VA's motto is: "To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan," a phrase from President Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural address on March 4, 1865.

However, Lincoln's words did not become VA's official motto until 1959, when Sumner G. Whittier, the administrator of what was at the time known as the Veterans Administration, used the phrase in a document on VA medical history prepared for Congress and found the words so inspiring that he had them installed on a pair of metal plaques that currently flank the entrance to VA's headquarters in Washington, DC.

Lincoln is often regarded as a heroic figure, and his words, when spoken in 1865, reflected a time when most service-members and veterans were male.  

Although a document on VA's website discussing the origins of its motto states that "President Lincoln's words have stood the test of time," have they? 

If we have learned in anything in 2020, it's that words matter and words that exclude female veterans have drawn the attention of both Congress and stakeholders.

Importantly, women have played a role in nearly all of our nation's conflicts since its founding. According to NPR

ADVERTISEMENT

"Women fired cannons in the Revolutionary War, led troops in the Civil War, flew bombers in World War II, and the list goes on, right up to women fighting and dying alongside Special Forces in Syria."

The veteran's group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America has made changing the VA's motto one of its priorities, and earlier this month, the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs passed a bill out of committee with bipartisan support that would replace VA's motto with gender-neutral language: 

"To fulfill President Lincoln's promise to care for those 'who shall have borne the battle' and for their families, caregivers, and survivors."

VA Secretary Robert WilkieRobert Leon WilkieAtlantic editor: Reporting on Trump comments about fallen service members has only just begun Sunday shows - Stimulus, election preparations dominate Veterans Affairs secretary defends Trump: 'I judge a man by his actions' MORE has pushed back on efforts to change VA's motto, telling lawmakers at a hearing last year that "I'm not arrogant enough to say I want to change Abraham Lincoln's words."

To this end, perhaps the answer to the issues surrounding VA's motto requires a different solution than the one proposed by the House language; indeed, as VA continues to tell Congress that it is working to modernize and operationalize the department, why not start by modernizing and operationalizing its motto by going in a different direction altogether?

One of the other great quotations often paraphrased about the VA and its mission are the words of Omar Bradley. He was appointed director of the Veterans Administration in 1945 by President Harry Truman.

When tasked with modernizing the agency in the aftermath of World War II, Bradley is credited with saying

"We are dealing with [veterans] not procedures; with their problems, not ours."

Concerning modernization, this phrase provides a focus on VA's stated goal of being veteran-centric. With regard to operationalization, the Government Accountability Office has repeatedly emphasized that the VA needs to improve; this phrase helps guide the department as it develops its strategic goals and translates them into action. 

In the interim, VA does not have to abandon the words of Lincoln altogether, but can instead paraphrase them for use in historical and aspirational contexts, rather than as the guiding mission of the department. 

VA itself has cited to the Bradley quotation as inspiration for its Official Military Activities Report (OMAR) tool, which allows for quicker verification of mental health claims, stating that "OMAR was developed in the spirit of Bradley's words and VA's current goals of modernizing systems and processes to provide better customer service to our [v]eterans."

A new agency motto that embraces Bradley's words makes sense for several reasons.

First, as the nation continues to grapple with the complicated legacy of the Civil War and its aftermath, quotations even from Lincoln continue to be marred by some degree of controversy. Therefore, a motto that stems from the Civil War era, even when changed to gender-neutral language, may not be in VA's best interest.

Second, it is important to note that Bradley's original words were "we are dealing with men not procedures," so although his words are not perfect either, they have consistently been paraphrased with the use of "veterans" in place of "men" by VA and others without issue. This demonstrates that the same historical concerns about changing Lincoln's words, such as those expressed by Wilkie, are not at issue when it comes to Bradley. 

Finally, it is also important to remember that VA has only had a motto since 1959, or for the last 61 years and that it was put in place by the agency's leader, not by an act of Congress or the public sentiment of veterans themselves. Given this historical background, VA currently has the opportunity to not only change the motto and implement a more meaningful one but to include the input of Congress and stakeholders in the process as well. 

As recently summarized by Sidney Covington, a veteran who served as a medic in Afghanistan, "it should not be that difficult," reflecting that VA needs a motto that is "reflective of all service members who have risked their lives for this country."

VA would be wise to consider a new motto altogether as a means of accomplishing this goal.

Rory E. Riley-Topping is the founder of Riley-Topping Consulting, where she continues to work with various veterans organizations. Riley-Topping served as a litigation staff attorney for the National Veterans Legal Services Program (NVLSP), where she represented veterans and their survivors before the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. She also served as the staff director and counsel for the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs for former Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.). You can find her on Twitter: @RileyTopping.