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By David Vergun

Army News Service

Hundreds of active duty women and veterans turned out Oct. 22 at the gateway to Arlington National Cemetery to celebrate the legacy of more than 2.5 million sisters who have served in the nation’s military.

Former WACs, WAVEs, WMs, WAFs and SPARS shared with their active duty counterparts the contributions women have made to the U.S. military which are enshrined at the Women in Military Service for America Memorial that was dedicated by President Clinton Oct. 18, 1997.

While WIMSA serves as a memorial to all of America’s service women, Wilma L. Vaught, president of the Women’s Memorial Foundation doesn't consider it a museum, though the building does contain a gift store and features numerous artifacts and photographic exhibits.

“This is more than a memorial; it’s an educational center meant to tell the story of women in the military from the American Revolution through Iraq — it was an opportunity to tell the story of women’s service individually and collectively,” said Vaught, who enlisted in the Air Force in 1957 and went on to retire as a brigadier general in 1985 — one of only seven flag officers in all the U.S. armed forces then.

Vaught said WIMSA was also created because many women going back to World War II felt they never received recognition for all they did — from the nurse corps of the Army and Navy to the Army Air Corps WASPs who delivered fighter and bomber aircraft across the country. WIMSA also honors all women who served overseas during conflicts in the Red Cross, USO and Special Services.

“They deserved recognition because they changed the military and they changed life in America for women because they stepped out and did things women hadn’t done before… they created a new day for women,” she said. “Many of today’s military women go through the memorial and realize for the first time what women in the military did before them.

“We stand on the shoulders of all these women who met up with all kinds of obstacles and barricades and they overcame them,” Vaught added. “Today they can say I can have a career; I can have the opportunities for education; I can have a Family and be in the military when before they couldn’t stay in the military if they were pregnant.”

The afternoon ceremony included memories from guest speakers, either active duty or retired from each service branch who told their stories and why they became Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, Airwomen and Coast Guard women and the challenges each faced at the point in history in which they joined.

Guest speakers included Allison A. Hickey, under secretary for benefits with Veterans Affairs and a retired brigadier general whose military career started when she graduated from the Air Force Academy in 1980, the first class to include women. She said too many women veterans when they leave the service just fade away not thinking too much about their service.

She encouraged women veterans to stand proudly and declare themselves veterans starting with herself. No less than 10 women stood and joined in the declaration.

Keynote speaker Jessica L. Wright, who serves as assistant secretary of Defense for Reserve Affairs was the Army National Guard’s first woman CH-47 Chinook aviator. She began her association with the Army by enlisting in 1975. She obtained her bachelor’s degree and retired as a major general in 2010 after commanding the Pennsylvania National Guard.

“There’s not a better or fitting place to pause and reflect on those contributions than here at the Women’s Memorial. It is a wonderful testament of the power of women in the service to our country,” she said. “This monument honors the legacy and the proud and distinguished service of women. With every passing day, there is a new and enthusiastic group of young women who join the list of forebearers that we honor here today. They have the same determination and courage that runs through our current serving women that was in our predecessors.”

WIMSA hopes to have 250,000 women veterans in its historical record by the end of the year. Vaught said they're shy that figure by just 301, but she's confident the foundation will reach its goal.

What she’s less sure about is raising the $3 million annually to meet payroll and maintenance of the 33,000 square-foot education center. She said the memorial sees an average of about 150,000 visitors a year, “not too bad a number, but I had hoped that given there’s about 4.5 million who visit Arlington every year we would see about 500,000 visitors. I think that would solve our economic problems.”