By Debbie Gregory.
More than 200 years ago, when the American colonies declared independence from the British throne, women were on the front lines to defend the infant nation. Since then, women have served in every conflict the U.S. has been involved in around the world – as nurses, military police, aviators, generals and more. Nearly 2.5 million women have taken their place in the ranks, both on and off the battlefield. They have lived and died for their nation. Brigadier General Wilma L. Vaught , USAF (Ret.), thought it was time that their sacrifices and strength were recognized on the national stage.
In 1995, Vaught spearheaded a campaign to raise more than $20 million to construct the Women’s Memorial at the gateway of Arlington National Cemetery.
The 4.2-acre site features a 30-foot high, curved retaining wall at the entrance, and a reflecting pool in front of the curved gateway. Inside, the memorial is lit by sunlight streaming through a glass roof, etched with quotations by and about women who have served in uniform. The shadows of their words drift down and settle onto the gallery below.
A 33,000 sq. ft. education center located inside the memorial is home to artifacts from women veterans. There is a 196-seat theater and a computerized register where visitors can read the stories of the more than 250,000 women who have registered and shared their tales of war and national pride.
It was fitting that Vaught led the charge for the memorial. As one of the most highly decorated military women in the U.S., she broke many of the barriers, and was personally responsible for career improvements for women in the military.
After she earned a bachelor’s degree in business from the University of Illinois, Vaught enlisted in the Air Force in 1957 and rose through the ranks as she served in Europe, Vietnam and at various locations in the U.S.
In 1966, she was the first woman to deploy with a strategic air command bombardment wing on an operational deployment. In 1972, she was the first female Air Force officer to attend the Industrial College of the Armed Forces. In 1980, she was the first woman promoted to brigadier general in the comptroller career field. And in 1982, she was appointed Commander of the U.S. military Entrance Processing Command in Illinois, geographically the largest command in the military.
Now retired after a 29-year military career, Vaught is President of the Women in Military Service for America Memorial Foundation. The organization continues to collect the histories of women who have served their nation. They offer the only place where these stories can be stored, honored and celebrated.