HARTFORD, Conn. – The words of Abraham Lincoln are usually revered, but not so for some when it comes to the motto for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Veterans groups and Yale Law School students are asking the VA to change its creed, saying it excludes women and ignores their contributions to the military.
The VA's mission is to fulfill a promise of America's 16th president "to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan." Lincoln made the comments in his second inaugural address in 1865 while talking about reconciliation and reconstruction as the Civil War was coming to an end.
Yale students, representing the advocacy groups Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, NYC Veterans Alliance and Service Women's Action Network, petitioned the VA Friday to change the motto.
"The VA's motto is outdated," Students with Yale's Veterans Legal Services Clinic wrote in the petition. "By excluding women, it effectively erases the meaningful contributions that women have made to the military, and communicates to women veterans that they are unwelcome outsiders."
The students also said the VA has been failing to meet the health care needs of many women veterans and service members.
VA officials have rejected previous requests to change the motto, including one made last year by Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. The Service Women's Action Network, which advocates for women military service members and veterans, made its first request nearly a decade ago.
VA spokesman Curt Cashour said Monday the agency will review the petition and "respond appropriately."
"Lincoln's words serve as a historic tribute to all veterans, including women veterans, whose service and sacrifice inspires us all," the statement said. "They are a timeless and poignant reminder of the debt America owes all who have worn the uniform."
Supporters of changing the motto cite actions by other military institutions aimed at including women.
In 2003, the Air Force Academy removed a sign on campus that said "Bring Me Men," a phrase from an 1894 Sam Walter Foss poem. It replaced the sign with one bearing a new motto, "Integrity First. Service Before Self. Excellence in All We Do."
The U.S. Naval Academy in 2004 changed the words to its fight song "Navy Blue & Gold" to make them gender-neutral. And the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 2008 did the same with wording in its alma mater.
Retired Navy Capt. Lory Manning, director of government operations for the Service Women's Action Network, said many women service members and veterans would be happy if the VA changed the motto to "to care for those who shall have borne the battle" and removed the "for his widow, and his orphan."
"I'm sure Lincoln wouldn't mind," Manning said. "We now have over 2 million women vets in this country. It's time for the VA to signal they're not just for men anymore."
Not all female veterans, however, feel the same way.
Kayda Keleher, a Marine Corps veteran who now works for Veterans of Foreign Wars, wrote last year that changing the motto likely would cost millions of dollars because of the need to update every welcome sign, pamphlet, letterhead and other things containing the current motto. She said the money would be better spent on improving VA services to women.