ARLINGTON, Va. (WOMENSENEWS)–As visitors to the Tomb of the Unknowns were filing out of Arlington National Cemetery on a brisk sunny Veterans Day afternoon, a smaller, more focused group was filing in. These visitors, mostly female, were making a beeline for the Women’s National Memorial to pay tribute to the lesser known, but equally dynamic, heroes who had served their country and laid down their lives in battles past.
The ceremony at the Women’s Memorial, a castle-like building of gray stone, was devoid of the presidential pomp and circumstance that surrounded the laying of the wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns earlier in the day. Instead, about 100 mostly female military veterans and visitors came together to honor one another for serving their country in jobs well done.
The Women’s Memorial, dedicated in October 1997, had been a work in progress for 11 years, finally becoming the traditional destination for honoring the 1.4 million women veterans. Today, women are 15 percent of those on active duty, 16 percent of military retirees and 20 percent of recruits.
The ceremony included placing a wreath on a stand on the stage. The names of honored veterans will be placed on plaques fastened to the sturdy oak theater chairs in the hall. Their names were read out and several women veterans stood: Lt. Col. Jeanette D. Kraska, an Army nurse; 2nd Lt. Shirlie M. Ray, Women’s Army Corps, World War II; Maj. Blanche Scott, Army Reserve; and Col. Bianca Trimeloni.
Brig. Gen. Wilma Vaught, president of Women in Military Service for America Memorial Foundation Inc., the foundation that oversees the Women’s Memorial, served 28 years in the U.S. Air Force before retiring in 1985. One of the most decorated women in military history, Vaught became president of the foundation in 1987.
In comments after her speech, Vaught turned away from the need to honor women veterans and focused on the current military realities. She reflected on the new meaning that Veterans Day now holds, not only for those who were affiliated with the military, but also for those civilians who had, until now, never given the day much thought.
General Sees Lack of Effort to Understand Why Others Hate Us
“The difference that I see in terms of Veterans Day this year is a greater respect for the military and for veterans,” Vaught said. “There is far more respect for us than there has been at any other time in our nation’s history. I’m certain this is a direct result of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11.”
Vaught said one reason for the newfound respect is the greater visibility of the military at airports and other potential terrorist targets.
However, Vaught expressed concern that the U.S. war to destroy the ruling Taliban regime in Afghanistan and wanted terrorist Osama bin Laden was not the only approach to the complex international problem of terrorism.
“My greatest concern is that I’m not sure we as a country are doing enough to understand why some peoples in other nations hate us,” Vaught said. “There may be some corrections that need to be made to our foreign policies to alleviate some of that hatred.”
There was no question in her mind that the direct attack upon the United States required a forceful response by the administration. The U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan may liberate many people who disagree with the Taliban’s harsh fundamentalist brand of Islam, Vaught said, but the same campaign is extremely disturbing to some Americans and those in other countries.
Maj. Gen. Irene Trowell-Harris, keynote speaker and director of the Department of Veterans Affairs Center for Women Veterans in Washington, also expressed her concerns over the war.
Women Are Ready to Fight This War
“I think when the attacks happened we were all very upset and decided something needed to be done. Of the options we had, going to war was probably one of the best. However, I would like to see us do the job without taking innocent lives, but unfortunately this is something that is involved when there is a war.”
Trowell-Harris retired from the Air National Guard in September after 38 years and was approved a month later for her current position in the Department of Veterans Affairs. She is the first African American woman ever to be promoted to general officer in the National Guard.
She said it is vital that the current administration do all it can to unearth the reason for the Sept. 11 attack. While Towell-Harris said she had no special insight into the motivations of the attackers, she was confident of one thing: Women will serve in this war.
“I do not believe military women are frightened by this new kind of war. We all have to remember that these women have dedicated their lives to this. They are not afraid to do their jobs. We want this to remain a free country, and that’s why we have put our lives on the line.”
As director of the Center for Women Veterans, Trowell-Harris’ mission and the mission of the organization is to find the thousands of women veterans who have not registered with Veterans Affairs and, as a result, are not receiving the benefits and health care to which they are entitled.
1.4 Million Women Vets, but Only Small Number Registered for Benefits
“It is so important for us to take care of these women and get them to understand what their benefits and rights are,” said Trowell-Harris. She added that of the 1.4 million women veterans, only about 5 percent are registered for benefits.
Trowell-Harris said that in order to locate these military personnel, Veterans Affairs builds coalitions with organizations like Women in Military Service. A special emphasis is on locating women veterans in rural areas and minority communities, as they may be cut off from communication and rarely receive updated information.
While Vaught acknowledged that the war in Afghanistan and the larger war against terrorism will affect the entire nation, she added that women in the military will face particular challenges because they are female.
“It is going to be interesting, given where this war is going to be fought and the attitudes toward women in some of these regions, exactly how we will employ and deploy our women,” she said. “I hope that as these decisions are made, respect is given to how far we’ve come, and we don’t take a giant step backwards.”
While “getting back to normal” has become a fervent, almost cliched desire in the aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Trowell-Harris recommended that women do just the opposite.
“I am recommending that women, and everyone, do not return to their normal lives,” she said. “We all need to do more than ever before. We need to support our administration through this time, as well as the women and men in the military.
“We also need to support and respect our veterans. We simply cannot allow terrorists to defeat our country and take away our freedom. This aspect of freedom is more important than ever to women, simply because it took us so long to even be allowed to serve in the military.”
Deborah L. Rouse is a free-lance writer based in Washington, D.C., regularly covering minority issues.
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