Social Education 58(2), 1994, pp. 98-100
National Council for Social Studies

General Vaught Talks About American Women Veterans

Interview by Sukhwindar Singh
On October 5, 1993, one of the most decorated military women in U.S. history, Brigadier General Wilma L. Vaught, USAF (Ret.), President of the Board of Directors of the Women in Military Service for America (WIMSA) Memorial Foundation, Inc., was interviewed for this issue of Social Education. The foundation is establishing a memorial at Arlington Cemetery outside Washington, D.C., to honor all women who have served in the American military. Gen. Vaught was selected by women veterans to be the foundation's president in part because they knew that the only woman to ever earn the rank of general in the comptroller (financial management) career field would have the necessary skills to organize the funding and building of the memorial.

Could you begin by telling us the purpose of the memorial?
First, the memorial is intended to honor women; but second, it is to record the history of their accomplishments and the barriers they confronted and to make these women's achievements visible to the world at large. Because most people know little about the women who served in our military or how they felt about their service, we're going to make all of these things visible through the memorial. This will not be just a small statue; this will be a major memorial with an education center, exhibits, a theater with multimedia presentations, and a computer registry. Each woman who is registered has the opportunity to have her picture, details about her service, and a statement of her memorable experiences recorded for posterity.

Why have the women chosen this particular time to establish the memorial?
It came out of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. There was much talk at that time about the recognition and lack of recognition of our service members. Women veterans started writing their members of Congress, saying, "Wait a minute, what about us? We served too and we have never been recognized." Members of Congress started checking and found out it was true. To their amazement, members found that women had started serving during the American Revolution and that they had served in every one of America's wars. No one seemed to know this, or that women veterans had not been equitably treated throughout the years. Congress decided that a memorial was in order, and the legislation was passed and signed into law in November of 1986.

What are some of the problems you are encountering?
The major difficulty is raising the money. Certainly there are many people who are very supportive of it, but only money builds memorials. We thought with the 1.2 million women veterans and 400,000 women currently serving, we could easily raise $25 million. But the difficulty is you can't find the women veterans. We began collecting data in 1987, and we've probably found about 100,000. When I'm out traveling, I find, more frequently than not, that I'll meet women who are veterans and they'll say, "Why didn't someone tell me about this memorial?" Well, we didn't know how to find them.

If you didn't know how to find these women, where did you start looking?
We went to the women's veterans organizations, which accounts for a total of 40,000-45,000 women. We found out that women have not historically joined the veteran organizations because they were very male-dominated. We went to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), and we found that officials in the VA could not find these women either.

Is it just because those records are not there?
No, it has been the general attitude toward women veterans and the attitude that women veterans have had about themselves. Most women have not considered themselves veterans to the extent that men have. There weren't the claims (i.e., disability, education, loans) among women that there were among men because of combat duty.

When you talk about women veterans, you're talking about more than just nurses, aren't you?
Absolutely. We're talking about any woman who served--whether it was for 24 hours or 35 years. Many of the women got out, married, and never really talked about their service. They didn't join veterans groups or go to the VA for help. For the most part, the VA medical centers were set up to take care of the male veterans, not the female veterans, and if women went, they were told, "Well, we're sorry; we'd like to help you, but we can't," and that was the end of that.

This continued beyond World War II?
This was even true until the early 1980s when the issue was raised and we had a director of the VA at that time who decided to meet the challenge. Members of Congress also applied pressure because they were getting so many letters from women about not being supported in the VA when they were entitled to that support.

You mentioned the critical barriers to locating the women and building the memorial. Can you elaborate on those difficulties?
We have gotten through the design process without too great a difficulty. For the design of the memorial, we selected an architectural team of one woman and one man. The man's mother was a nurse in the army in World War II and had to get out when she became pregnant with him. She told him he had to enter this competition in order to make up to her for that. With the design completed, it's purely money and finding the women now. Those are the critical barriers. Occasionally you meet a woman who says, "I don't know why I should register," and it becomes a matter of helping that person understand her place in history so that she becomes enthusiastic.

How have men responded with help in funding?
Fifty percent of our donors are men. Male veterans who were sick or wounded feel a strong debt of gratitude to the nurses.

Approximately how many women will be registered for the memorial?
I would hope that by the dedication there will be 500,000. That's a big goal. Within five or ten years, we should have 750,000 to a million. That may be as high as we'll ever get. Unfortunately, there will be some that will never be registered because nobody remembers.

Is that because of lack of documentation?
We don't require any documentation. If we can get the name and as much information as someone has attesting to the fact that the person was in the military, then we don't require documents. We just want someone to say this woman was in, and we accept them.

How many women are actually registered now?
We have about 100,000 identified who are either registered or could be registered.

Does that include the women from Desert Storm, because I had heard that all of those women were registered with the memorial?
That includes many of the women from Desert Storm, but we don't have them all identified yet. The Saudi and Kuwaiti governments contributed toward their registration, but the women are not registered until their names are recorded by us. The Department of Defense does not furnish us with names. So, until those names are recorded, they are not registered.

Can you give me some information about the women you do have registered?
Almost 30 percent of the women who are registered served in World War II. Twenty-one percent of them are nurses. At the moment we have fourteen women from the American Revolution, one from the War of 1812, three from the Mexican War, forty-nine from the Civil War, and five from the Spanish-American War. Fifty-two percent are officers, and 48 percent are enlisted. The states that have the most women registered are California, Florida, Texas, New York, and Virginia, the states where most of the women veterans live. We have a number of women who served in World War I who are in their 90s or even over 100 years of age. Of the World War I women, we have about 1000 out of 35,000, or 3 percent, so far; about 200 of those are listed as alive.

You have spent your working career in the military and have learned much about women in the military. But in your new position heading up the memorial project, what have you learned about women in the military that you did not know before?
Oh, it has just been phenomenal what I have learned! You know there is sort of a myth that women serving in the military did not carry guns. Well, women soldiers carried guns as early as World War II. There was an experiment in World War II using women in anti-aircraft batteries right in the Washington, D.C., area because we thought at that time the coast of the United States might be invaded. Just the other day I found out that about two dozen women participated in an experiment with chemical gases and their effect on the skin when covered with various types of uniform clothing. The experiments were using mustard gas! One woman that I've been in contact with said she has had over 400 lesions, some of which were cancerous. I didn't know we had done something like that.

How did you track this woman down?
She registered herself.

Did she file for veterans' benefits?
She has an appeal under consideration now.

Is that the only time you have come across stories about chemical experiments or other instances of particular hardship?
That's the only time I've come across a story about chemical experiments. Of course, I knew about the women prisoners of war before, but I know much more now. I had met some of the women prisoners of war (POWs) when I first went into the service. Now, I've had an opportunity to meet many more, and I've done more reading about it. So I have a greater knowledge of the types of problems they had and the types of problems they subsequently have. Women POWs have a higher incidence of cancer than the population at large, especially colon cancer, which was probably caused by malnutrition. Those POWs are as wonderful a group of people as you'd ever want to meet, and they lived through devastating experiences. But they survived. It offers great proof of women's abilities to survive in the face of difficult circumstances. I also learned that there were over 300 Nisei or Japanese-American women who, even though their relatives were in internment camps, answered the call and served as intelligence specialists during World War II.

Anything else you'd like to say about the women who served in the military?
Just that in the face of barriers, discrimination, and harassment, they have achieved.

Can you make some predictions about future changes in the military for women?
There are increasing numbers of women competing to go into aviation. Additional ships will be open to women, and that will happen soon. We'll continue to have debates about women's role on the ground in the Army and Marine Corps, particularly for the infantry, armored, and artillery units. We will gradually make progress there, but that will be much more difficult and happen much more slowly.

Can you address the myths or misconceptions that people have about women in the military?
First of all, I think until Desert Storm, when we watched on our TV screen what our forces were doing in support of that effort, the public did not realize the extent of women's roles. Few would have known that there were women with Patriot missiles, or that women served on air crews for non-combat aircraft and as military police. So I think that during and after Desert Storm, there was a great revelation about what women are really doing in the armed services. Second was the perception that started in World War II, that women who went into the military were going in for less than the highest of moral purposes. There was the widespread misconception that the women were seeking husbands or didn't have high moral standards. This was not the truth then, nor is it now. But there are still people around who raise their eyebrows when a woman indicates she is going into the service. In my judgment, a woman is far safer in the military than in most other places she could work.

It is interesting that they focus on an issue like that and less on the professionalism of the women.
Yes, but I think that now there is a great recognition of the professionalism of women. They are much more visible, and I look forward to seeing them in ever more positions of increasing responsibility.

What types of things would you like to see teachers teach their students about women in the military?
Well, I specifically would like for teachers to make it known that opportunities exist in the military for women. I do think it is an opportunity. You have a chance to do things in the military that you may never have any place else. These include the opportunity to travel, to meet with people of diverse backgrounds, to live in a foreign country, to work on projects of national significance, to hone your leadership and communication skills, and to learn job skills.

Are there things that teachers could do in the classroom to prepare their students for careers in the military?
I don't consider the general requirements for joining the military to be any different from the general requirements of other careers. I think the three basic skills are the ability to read, to write, and to do simple mathematics. If you love to read and develop your vocabulary, what you are able to achieve becomes unlimited.

What would you say to teachers and counselors who encounter young females interested in the military?
One of the great advantages of being in the service is that the service is like a big family. In that family, a person can grow up and mature. I would say to students: if you're undecided about what you want to be when you grow up, a tour of duty in the service can help you to realize the value of more education and can put the discipline in your life so that you'll go about doing something to realize your dreams.

Is there anything that public school students and teachers could do to help you with this memorial project?
Yes, because all the students come out of homes across America. Their mothers, sisters, cousins, grandmothers may have been in the service. If they can get the word to that person that a memorial is being built or to the family of that person and have them get in touch with us, then that person can become a part of the memorial and be honored. We would be grateful for their help in locating female veterans.

I'm just very excited about having the opportunity to work on this memorial. In the decades to come, this is going to be a tremendous thing. Women will be able to come to visit the memorial, and will be able to see what other women have done despite many obstacles. It is going to help build a sense of pride that women should take in service to the nation and in their contributions and accomplishments.

Anyone wanting to register a woman with the memorial or seeking additional information should write to: Women in Military Service for America Memorial Foundation, Inc., Dept. 560, Washington, D.C. 20042-0560, or call 1-800-222-2294.

Sukhwindar Singh is a former Maryland public school science teacher and currently a doctoral student in curriculum and instruction at West Virginia University. Her research interests are in science misconceptions, environmental education, and women's studies.