On a recent chilly day in Manhattan, a group of veterans marched a dozen miles up the island — from the historic Fraunces Tavern to the spot where the first woman pensioned by the United States Army fired her cannon at British redcoats.
Her name was Margaret Corbin — and now there's a bill in Congress to name the Manhattan VA for her. It's part of another movement, to change the motto of the Department of Veterans Affairs so that it reflects that women do — and have always — served in the armed forces.
"There is no better or more appropriate veteran to name the Manhattan VA after than Margaret Corbin," said Kristen Rouse, a three-tour Afghanistan Army veteran. Rouse organized the Nov. 16 "ruck-march" in Corbin's honor, 242 years to the day after her heroic actions.
When Corbin's husband John volunteered to fight the British, Margaret became a "camp-follower" — one of the many family members who cooked and tended to troops in George Washington's rebel army.
John Corbin was part of the force assigned to defend New York harbor from the commanding heights of what's now Fort Tryon Park in Manhattan — in what became known as the Battle of Fort Washington. The Americans were vastly outnumbered by attacking British redcoats and Hessian mercenaries on that day in 1776.
The small artillery company was ordered to hold off the Hessians. When John was killed, Margaret stepped in to take her husband's place, fighting until the position was overrun.
"And witnesses later attested that Margaret's gun was the last to fall silent on Forest Hill. And only after she'd been struck by three musket balls and mangled by grapeshot. Leaving severe wounds in her jaw and chest and nearly severing her left arm," said Rouse, "It's an astonishing story that Americans need to know."
Making Manhattan's 23rd Street VA Medical Center the first in the country to bear the name of a female soldier would help do that. But what happened to Corbin after the war is just as significant.
Corbin was given half a male soldiers' pension. She never recovered from her wounds, living out her days near West Point, known as a hard-drinking woman who preferred the company of other vets. Maybe not a model VA success story, but a familiar one.
Corbin's remains are interred in the West Point cemetery.
Striving to include women
New York politicians have signaled they support the move, but for Rouse and others the renaming effort is just a shot across the bow - they also want to change the words written on all VA hospitals – by updating the VA motto:
"...to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan."
It's from Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural address, delivered in the closing days of the Civil War.
Advocates want to change the motto to, "...and for 'their' widow, and 'their' orphan" — to reference both male and female vets.
The current VA secretary, Robert Wilkie, says he's proud of the way the U.S. military and the VA have changed to include women. But he's not comfortable changing Lincoln's words — he'd rather stress the new services available to female vets.
"Because when they walk in to a veterans hospital and there's a women's clinic for the first time in our history that acknowledges on the part of the Veterans Affairs Department that the world has changed," Wilkie told NPR in a recent interview. "But I can't remove the words of one of the greatest Americans in history because without him there is no Veterans Affairs Department. "
Krisen Rouse says she's not trying to change Lincoln's words – just the motto.
"When you walk into the Manhattan VA, I can't tell you where the women's clinic is, but I can tell you where the motto is," Rouse says. "And I can tell you the spots where people have questioned whether I'm a veteran or not."
Rouse says that happens every time she goes to the VA.
The motto change is supported by several groups representing post Sept. 11 veterans — and there is now a bipartisan bill to do so moving through Congress. One of its sponsors is another Afghanistan vet, Republican Rep. Brian Mast of Florida.
"There's no doubt that female veterans face unique challenges and healthcare needs that the VA has not yet been able to successfully address," Mast told NPR in a statement. "Fixing this critical failure starts at the top and changing the mission statement is a needed first step."
A VA spokesperson said the department has no position on the bill, but without comment forwarded an op-ed from the military news website Task and Purpose, which points out that changing the motto would probably cost millions of dollars.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
On a chilly day this month, veterans marched a dozen miles up the island of Manhattan to a special spot. It was where, in November 1776, the first woman to fight for the U.S. Army fired her cannon at British redcoats. A bill in Congress now proposes to name the Manhattan VA Medical Center after Margaret Corbin. The effort to honor her is linked with a movement to change the motto of the Department of Veterans Affairs to also reflect that women have always served. NPR's Quil Lawrence reports.
QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: At the northern tip of Manhattan, there's a high bluff with a great view - just what General George Washington wanted for the defense of New York against the British. The actual defending fell to soldiers like John Corbin and his wife Margaret. They were outnumbered.
KRISTEN ROUSE: After John was killed, Margaret sponged, loaded and fired the gun all by herself.
LAWRENCE: That's Kristen Rouse who served three tours with the Army in Afghanistan.
ROUSE: And witnesses later attested that Margaret's gun was the last to fall silent on Forest Hill - and only after she'd been struck by three musket balls and mangled by grapeshot, leaving severe wounds in her jaw and chest and nearly severing her left arm.
LAWRENCE: Rouse and a small group of vets were standing at Margaret Corbin Circle, not far from where the battle happened, telling Corbin's story over the sound of traffic and planes overhead, including what happened to Corbin after the war. She was given half a male soldier's pension. She never recovered from her wounds, living out her days near West Point known as a hard-drinking woman who preferred the company of other vets. Not a perfect story but not unfamiliar, says Kristen Rouse.
ROUSE: And there is no better or more appropriate veteran to name the Manhattan VA after than Margaret Corbin.
LAWRENCE: That has support from New York politicians. But Rouse and others are pushing for another change, this one in the mission written on the walls of every VA hospital. We asked VA Secretary Robert Wilkie to read it off the wall of his own office.
ROBERT WILKIE: We shall care for those who have borne the battle and for his widow and orphan.
LAWRENCE: That's from Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural address in the closing days of the Civil War. Advocates want to change it to their widow and their orphan to include male and female vets. Wilkie, himself a vet, says he's proud of the way the U.S. military and the VA have changed to include women, but he's not comfortable changing Lincoln's words. He'd rather stress the new services available to female vets.
WILKIE: 'Cause when they walk into a veterans hospital and there's a women's clinic for the first time in our history, that acknowledges on the part of the Veterans Affairs Department that the world has changed. But I can't remove the words of one of the greatest Americans in history because without him, there is no Veterans Affairs Department.
ROUSE: We're not asking anybody to change Abraham Lincoln's words. We're asking for the VA to change its motto.
LAWRENCE: That's Kristen Rouse again.
ROUSE: When you walk into the Manhattan VA, I can't tell you where the women's clinic is. I can tell you where the motto is. And I can tell you the spots where people have questioned whether I'm a veteran or not.
LAWRENCE: Which she says happens every time she goes to the VA. She says the mission statement sets the tone, and there is now a bipartisan bill moving through Congress to change it.
Quil Lawrence, NPR News, New York.
(SOUNDBITE OF I/O'S "60//SOUTH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.