Celebrating Her Story, One Visitor at a Time
By Ashleigh Bryant
Retired U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Wilma L. Vaught, President of the Women’s Memorial Foundation, gives her introduction speech to the attendees.
(U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Andrew Lee)
Walking into the Women in Military Service for America (WIMSA) memorial, one of the first things to catch the eye is an 8-by-20 foot wall covered in colorful scraps of paper. Taped to the wall with blue painter’s tape, these hundreds of overlapping sheets contain messages, drawings, doodles and prayers for the women who have served this nation. The artists are men, women and children of all ages, passersby to the memorial who took the time to thank women they have never met for the freedoms they helped secure.
The memorial’s artist-in-residence, Chris Demarest, explained that the wall began with a single drawing from a 6-year-old visitor. He taped her sketch to the wall alongside a note asking others to add their own contributions. One week later, the entire length of the wall had been covered, and now hundreds of notes have been left honoring mothers, aunts, wives, daughters, sisters and strangers.
“What I expected would just be a vehicle for little kids to entertain themselves has become all sorts of people coming in and leaving notes,” said Demarest. “There was one note taped right next to my easel that just said, ‘You have made me rethink how I am raising my daughter.’ It had nothing to do with my art, but everything to do with the Women’s Memorial.”
The memorial opened in 1997, and some 200,000 people visit annually. Quite often it’s droves of school children or tour groups paying their respects to those buried at Arlington, but this stunning memorial has also served as the backdrop many women have chosen for landmark moments in their military careers. Since its dedication, it remains the only major national memorial dedicated solely and uniquely to honoring the service of women veterans.
In October, nearly 500 people filed into Arlington National Cemetery to celebrate the memorial’s 15th anniversary. Women from every military branch and era gathered and paid tribute to each other, and to the history of women in the armed forces.
“This anniversary means a tremendous amount because the purpose of the memorial is to be a place where we could tell her story,” said WIMSA Foundation president, retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Wilma Vaught.
This year and for several years prior, DAV has sponsored efforts and events for the memorial foundation, including the distribution of Women’s History Month kits for schools, libraries and veterans organizations across the country.
“DAV is proud to support this memorial and what it represents to women veterans and to the entire country,” said Washington Headquarters Executive Director Barry Jesinoski. “We’re honored to help educate the public about both the history and future of women veterans.”
Veteran Linda Gunder, who attended the Army’s last all-female basic training at Fort Jackson, S.C., first visited the memorial in 2000. “I brought my son out here so he could see it when I came out and registered,” she said. “I’m glad that it’s grown, because more women veterans need to enter their service record with this place. It wasn’t all guys, the girls were there, too. I’m very pleased to see it. This is a very worthy monument to women.”
Demarest, who speaks with women veterans touring the memorial, explained the site helps provide a tangible link between women who served in different eras.
“Talking to a lot of the World War II, Korean, and even Vietnam War women veterans about their experiences, it was extremely limited. The change they see oftentimes through their own daughters and granddaughters is amazing,” said Demarest. “They are proud to be part of that heritage. I think that the Women’s Memorial is a great launching point to remember their history and to bring in the younger servicewomen so they feel like they’re included.”
“So many of the women serving today, when they come through and walk through for the first time, they suddenly realize there is a legacy. They may not call it a legacy, but they understand that they stand on the shoulders of all those who preceded them, and that’s important,” Vaught echoed. “They’re learning where they’ve been, and this will help them get where they’re going.”
And it helps to shape the way future generations, including many of the young girls who pass through the memorial’s halls, recognize that they also have the opportunity to add to the legacy.
“A 10-year-old girl is going to come through here and say, ‘Wow—Tanks, planes, helicopters,’” said Demarest. “She might say, ‘I want to do that,’ but she’ll also know that she can.”
Today, the registry reflects the individual histories of some 250,000 women veterans. Countless memories and service stories bring the memorial to life for visitors who can read about each woman veteran registered. And Vaught, ever advocating for more names in the register, particularly encourages more women within DAV to make their information a lasting part of the memorial.