WASHINGTON — In the past 15 years, military women have led air wings, commanded a carrier strike group and piloted attack helicopters and fighters — all jobs they couldn't get in earlier years.
About 14.6 percent of active-duty military personnel are women. It's a racially diverse force, and many current service members have never lived in a world where women were not recruited, promoted or deployed just as easily as men.
The Women in Military Service for America Memorial marked its 15th anniversary Saturday, and those who birthed and nurtured it looked with pride on the progress of their descendants and expressed satisfaction with the recognition that the memorial has brought.
"Having this memorial has made a tremendous difference in the lives of veterans and service members," said retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Wilma L. Vaught, who has been the memorial's driving force for 28 years. "It means there's a place in the nation's capital that paid tribute to their service. . . . It's more than a memorial. It is an opportunity to tell the story of servicewomen individually and collectively."
It took 13 years of planning and construction, but "I always felt it was the right time, and if we didn't get it done then, it wouldn't get done," Vaught said in an interview.
The $21.5 million memorial, part of the main gateway to Arlington National Cemetery, draws about 150,000 visitors a year. The most difficult part was fundraising, and the $3 million for annual operating costs is still a struggle to raise, Vaught said.
But a sunny Saturday afternoon was not the time to talk money, with the folding chairs full of retired officers and the U.S. Army Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps playing patriotic tunes. The day was about stories of overcoming barriers and the rewards of military life.
"I think of all the years we served and all the roles we played," said retired Army Lt. Col. Julie Jefferson, who called the dedication ceremony 15 years ago "probably the greatest day of my life" aside from her wedding day and the days her children were born.
"There was not always the same recognition that women played in the military," Jefferson said.
Louise Whalon, who joined the Army Nurse Corps within days of the bombing of Pearl Harbor and retired after 25 years, said she felt that "it was my duty to go because I thought maybe all the Army nurses were old and they needed some young women to help. That's the story I told my mother and dad."
Air Force Col. Deanna Violette said she knew at age 10 that she wanted to be a military pilot, and she became one. When she and her husband decided to start a family, she broke another barrier: "Showing up pregnant at the door of an Army brigade commander and telling him I was his new Air Force liaison was challenging for both of us," she said.
"[The memorial] recognizes the service of women who have served everywhere, in war and peace," including in drug interdictions and refugee rescue operations, said Jessica L. Wright, assistant defense secretary for Reserve Affairs and an Army National Guard veteran. "Women have served every time our nation has called."