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Is “Sexist” VA Motto a Barrier to Treatment for Female Vets?

In May of last year, the executive director of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America wrote an essay in the Washington Post charging “The Department of Veterans Affairs has a woman problem,” and citing its motto as “evidence.” Allison Jaslow, who states she deployed twice to Iraq and “was in combat,” writes, “to swiftly show every woman who has worn a uniform that we honor her as much as the man who stood in formation next to her, we should replace the VA motto.” Recently, the Post ran a follow-up asking, “Is the VA motto outdated and sexist?” That follow-up linked to a “strongly worded letter” from Ms. Jaslow criticizing the “exclusionary motto” that enshrines “a culture that too often renders women veterans invisible at the agency, even to this day.”

The motto in question is taken from a line of President Lincoln’s second inaugural address where, anticipating the end to our bloody Civil War, he calls upon the nation “To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan.”  That powerful imperative became the VA motto in 1959 and is displayed on plaques outside the agency’s headquarters in Washington, D.C.  In her essay to the Post, Ms. Jaslow concedes Lincoln’s message “was an eloquent and well-meaning statement in its time.” But she reminds us, “The face of U.S. troops, and veterans, has drastically changed since then.”

For its part, the VA remains steadfast in its use of the motto. VA spokesman Curt Cashour told the Post, “VA is proud of Lincoln’s words as a historic tribute to all Veterans, including women Veterans, whose service and sacrifice inspires us all.”

At Marcari, Russotto, Spencer & Balaban, we applaud Ms. Jaslow for her advocacy on behalf of female veterans. As lawyers for disabled vets, we want to see every veteran receive the medical care and benefits they deserve. If the culture of the VA is a barrier to accessing medical care for female vets, that culture must change.

However, we fear that Ms. Jaslow runs the risk of being drawn into a symbolic battle she cannot win at the expense of substantive progress that could otherwise be made, and she has not suggested an appropriate replacement for Mr. Lincoln’s phrase.

Our hope is that Ms. Jaslow can work cooperatively with the VA to affect substantive changes in the agency’s culture that expand medical access to female veterans. Ms. Jaslow has expressed support for the Deborah Sampson Act, which is designed, in part, to make the VA more female-friendly. Although its list of reforms may be too expansive for majority support in Congress, the bill contains many elements that would improve the culture of the VA and the delivery of services to female veterans.

The VA benefits attorneys at Marcari, Russotto, Spencer & Balaban have more than 200 years of combined legal experience. If you or a loved one is having difficulty accessing benefits for a disabling condition, call 866-866-VETS or contact our office online.

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