Some Women Veterans Want VA to Change its Culture, Starting with Motto

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The Department of Veterans Affairs' motto, shown on a plaque outside the Veterans Health Administration building in Washington, D.C. (Hope Hodge Seck/Military.com)
The Department of Veterans Affairs' motto, shown on a plaque outside the Veterans Health Administration building in Washington, D.C. (Hope Hodge Seck/Military.com)

Targeted by catcalls, questioned for their sponsor's Social Security number, receiving subpar care at Department of Veterans Affairs health facilities, female veterans are seeking cultural change at the VA to ensure they receive a level of care earned by their military service.

And for some, it starts with the VA's motto, a quote from President Abraham Lincoln.

Female veterans testifying before a House Veterans Affairs subcommittee Thursday described a culture of sexual harassment at VA campuses and feeling invisible to VA employees, from welcome desks to medical providers and leadership.

They want to see more female physicians and specialty providers for female veterans, expanded programs for women and dedicated primary-care providers. But they also would like the VA to make a concerted effort to promote cultural change to reverse what they call a "deep and lasting history of invisibility for women in the veterans community."

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The signs on many VA buildings that read, "To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan" from Lincoln's second inaugural address should go, they said.

"Continuing to maintain and uphold the motto, despite women veterans having called for change, signals a willful desire to exclude us," said Lindsay Church, a Navy veteran and CEO of Minority Veterans of America.

Nearly 460,000 female veterans utilized VA health care in 2015, a 46% increase over the previous decade. Women still make up less than 8% of VA patients, but the numbers are expected to grow as women with service-related injuries seek care at the VA and as more women join the ranks of the U.S. military.

While the VA is making inroads in caring for female veterans, according to Army vets and Disabled American Veterans National Legislative Director Joy Ilem, female vets believe that most providers don't understand their military service or appreciate it.

"VA health care is the best system of care for women veterans with complex health care needs. VA's veteran-focused research, comprehensive health and mental health services and specialized programs for trauma make it uniquely suited for caring for this population ... but VA still struggles at certain locations to ensure privacy, safety, a welcome environment and specialists in women's care," Ilem said.

According to VA research, one in four women say they have experienced inappropriate or unwanted comments and behavior by male veterans at VA facilities. Roughly 8% said this happened nearly every time they visited a VA facility.

These veterans say the more they experience this harassment, the less likely they are to use the VA. These are veterans who have endured combat or trauma (more than 80%) and military sexual assault (62%).

As part of their efforts to be inclusive, some VA facilities have introduced a gender-neutral version of the VA motto that they use for placards and event programs, "To care for those 'who shall have borne the battle' and for their families and survivors."

But it isn't authorized. Lincoln's words are sacrosanct, VA officials have said. For the department, the "him" connotes gender neutrality in historical usage and context, similar to using "mankind" or "man" to describe humans.

Last year, the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America teamed with the Service Women's Action Network, Yale Law School's Veterans Service Women's Action Network and the New York City Veterans Alliance to press the VA to change the motto to reflect all veterans, including two million women.

But female veterans say the motto is just one of many needed changes to ensure that the VA serves them as well as it does men. Improvements in research, curricula, policies and facilities are badly needed, they said.

"We are not treated with the same professional respect as our male counterparts. Our rank and era of service are often used to limit access to programs," said BriGette McCoy, CEO of the Women Veteran Social Justice Network.

The VA maintains a Center for Women Veterans and runs a Women Veterans Call Center that provides information on available services. It has an advisory committee on female veterans and has launched campaigns to fight harassment on its campuses.

But the VA needs to do more, Ilem said, citing years of attempts to change but little progress.

"I think it's going to take a different tack," she said.

That tack, they say, would include changing the motto, which some say is painful to women veterans.

"Changing the motto won't by itself address the deep cultural divide that exists between women in the veterans community but it is a step in the direction toward inclusion," Church said.

House Veterans Affairs subcommittee Chairwoman Rep. Julia Brownley, D-California, did not weigh in on the motto controversy. She did announce, however, that the committee has launched a bipartisan Women Veterans Task Force to call attention to the issues facing two million veterans.

The task force will "have a national presence and create a national dialogue where we can identify all the inequities faced by women veterans and determine how we can tackle them through legislation and other means," she said.

"It sounds like we are having a veteran woman #MeToo moment that I think all of us have to make into a movement," Brownley added.

-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @patriciakime.

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