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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.
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