Major Wilma Vaught arrived in Saigon in the midst of the Vietnam War. It was October 1968, and the 38-year-old was there to work on audits and cost savings. The U.S. Air Force put her up in a hotel three blocks from the president’s palace, in a room being vacated by a female intelligence officer who left her an AK-47 and handgun secretly stashed in the bureau drawer.
Although President Lyndon Johnson had cleared the way for women to be promoted to the ranks of general and admiral a year earlier, women were still not allowed to have weapons training. Vaught’s only experience with firearms before her deployment to Vietnam was a lesson in marksmanship from her brother-in-law. As she was getting ready to end her tour in Vietnam, she asked her equipment manager if she could turn in weapons she was never issued and handed in the two unsanctioned guns.
Women have found ways onto the battlefield stretching to the Revolutionary War, when they were contracted as nurses. An estimated 400 women disguised as men fought in the Civil War. Some 20,000 women joined the U.S. Army Nurse Corps in World War I, and 400,000 women served in World War II. American military women didn’t get weapons training until the 1970s. In 2015, the Pentagon announced that the 200,000 active-duty women could finally be assigned to combat roles. Just this year, the first female infantry Marines joined a battalion.
When Brigadier General Vaught retired in 1985, she was one of the most highly decorated women in U.S. military history. Now, at 87 years old, she has spent the past 30 years fighting to get the achievements of her fellow female veterans recognized. Much of their history is stored in a generic office building in Arlington, Virginia.
In a large closet stuffed with 6,000 artifact collections from military women and their families, Britta Granrud pulls out a wedding dress made out of parachute silk. It belonged to a WWII Army nurse who married a pilot at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris in June 1945. Granrud is the curator of the organization Vaught spearheaded—the Women in Military Service for America Memorial, a museum-style memorial on the outskirts of Arlington National Cemetery. Though there are others for women in specific conflicts, it's currently the only national memorial for military women in the world.
As the memorial celebrates its 20th anniversary there are more challenges to overcome. Those passionate about the women serving have been nervously watching the White House, where both the president and vice president have previously expressed skepticism about women’s roles in the military, for potential policy reversals. Finances are another issue. In 2010, the memorial lost its Congressional grant and now operates on private donations for the $2.5 million dollars it costs to operate per year. A crowdsourced fundraising campaign launched last year to help raise funds to keep it open.
In the office in Arlington, the Women's Memorial collection pulls from across history. Racks of uniforms—some complete with military-issued underwear—span from the impractical to the jackets of the first female graduating class of West Point.
There are the thigh-high black leather boots worn by enlisted women to protect their legs from mosquitos before they were allowed to wear pants. The cape of a nurse working at a frontline casualty cleaning station in World War I. Army-issue glasses painted with red nail polish worn by the only African-American WAC unit dispatched overseas in World War II—sent to sort letters under the motto “No Mail, Low Morale.”
Few artifacts better depict the treatment of enlisted women than uniforms from the 1,043 women who served as pilots during WWII. The so-called WASPs (Women Airforce Service Pilots) never received military benefits. The families of the 38 who died in WWII had to pay to have their remains returned home. Not until 1977 did a law pass recognizing the surviving WASPs as veterans eligible for benefits. In 2016, a WASP veteran was finally buried in Arlington.
Such discrimination didn’t daunt Vaught. As a child, she didn’t like doing housework on her family's farm in Illinois, so she told her dad “When I grow up I want to be a man.” Instead, she paved the way for women to serve in equal military ranks. “Every major duty assignment I got I was the first woman ever to hold that job,” says Vaught. Inevitably, her arrival would be met with a slew of transfer requests.
Two years after she retired, she was asked to be on the board of directors of the Women's Memorial and was quickly elected president.
“No one was really keeping track of history,” she recalls. “Documents were being destroyed.”
The foundation chose an existing monument at the entrance of Arlington National Cemetery and transformed the inside of the structure into exhibits telling their stories. Its digital registry lets each woman display her picture and a record of her service.
Etched into glass plaques at the memorial are quotes from women who served. One is a letter Clara Barton wrote after the Civil War: “From the storm lashed decks of the Mayflower to the present hour, women have stood like a rock for the welfare and glory of the history of our country ... and one might well add: unwritten, unrewarded, and unrecognized.”
Her words still hold true, says Vaught. One of the major hurdles is how few women see themselves represented in the highest ranks. Years ago, Vaught was approached by a major at an event who said it was the first time she’d met a woman who outranked her. “I was horrified,” recalls Vaught. “I almost never turn down a request to speak and it is primarily because of that.”
The memorial has registered around 262,000 women veterans, but, Vaught points out, an estimated 3 million have served. She reads the obituaries and knows that many die without knowing about the monument dedicated to them.
For those who do visit, she says, “tears come because at last they’ve been recognized and there’s something there for their family to be proud of.”