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Brig. Gen. Wilma L. Vaught, USAF, Ret.

Special to Veterans Advantage

Wilma VaughtBrigadier General Wilma L. Vaught, USAF, Retired, is a career trailblazer whose efforts are receiving the praises of the Obama White House. Serving in the Air Force for more than 28 years, she was one of the few military women in the Vietnam War who was not a nurse. Inspired by the efforts of her fellow servicewomen, she led the campaign to build a national memorial to recognize their service.

She is currently President of the Board of Directors of the Women In Military Service For America Memorial Foundation, Inc. She headed a movement to create the memorial, an 11-year, $20 million effort to recognize women’s wartime contributions, which opened in October, 1997.

It’s entrance, a 30-foot, curving granite wall, is like "a mother’s embrace," said Vaught at its opening. In front of the monument, 200 jets of water converge into a pool. This fountain celebrates the "collective strength of many individuals, rather than singular acts of heroism and bravery," said architects Michael Manfredi and Marion Gail Weiss, who designed the memorial. Inside, glass tablets in the ceiling are inscribed with quotations by and about military women. Computerized data bases record names, photographs, service records, and personal statements.

The Women’s Memorial  
The Women’s Memorial is located at the Ceremonial Entrance to Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, VA, and is directly across Memorial Bridge from the Lincoln Memorial at the end of Memorial Drive.

BG Vaught has always been outspoken on the capabilities of women in service, a point she believes is increasingly relevant in today’s 21st Century Military.

“I think we should make our decisions, not based on gender, but on the requirements of the job. And I think we should give maximum flexibility to the commanders to use their troops however they see they need to at a given point in time,” she told CNN in 2003.

Her last military assignment was as Commander of the US Military Entrance Processing Command, North Chicago, IL, where she served from June 1982, until her retirement in August 1985. She then turned to building the memorial. Her other board positions include the Pentagon Federal Credit Union Foundation.


  First Lady Michelle Obama, right, listens to Retired Brig. Gen. Wilma L. Vaught during a tour at Arlington National Cemetery’s Women in Military Service for America Memorial Center in Arlington, Va., Tuesday, March 3, 2009. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
First Lady Michelle Obama, right, listens to Retired Brig. Gen. Wilma L. Vaught during a tour at Arlington National Cemetery’s Women in Military Service for America Memorial Center in Arlington, Va., Tuesday, March 3, 2009. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

On March 3, First-Lady Michelle Obama made a special trip to Arlington to honor women’s service to the military, using the Memorial as a backdrop. Gen. Vaught introduced the first lady, thanking Obama for making servicewomen, families, and their welfare a priority in the new administration.

She also chose the opportunity to get greater recognition for women in service in the Obama White House. Vaught said that Obama was "following in the footsteps of Eleanor Roosevelt of World War II fame," noting that Eleanor Roosevelt had invited servicewomen to tea at the White House.

"During my time in the military and the years since," Vaught said, "I’ve never known of the first lady issuing such an invitation.’’ Vaught then asked the audience whether anyone would like to have tea at the White House. The audience laughed and cheered.

"All right," Obama said, smiling. "You’re all invited. I think that’s an excellent idea."

"Military families have done their duty and we, as a grateful nation, must do ours. We must do everything in our power to honor them by supporting them, not just by words but by deeds," Mrs. Obama said. "And it is my great hope that today that future generations will honor women and men in uniform by first of all never taking the blessings of freedom for granted and by doing their part to create a more perfect union."

Military families, Obama said, "are mothers and fathers who have lost their beloved children to war. They are husbands and wives keeping the family on track while their wives and husbands are deployed on duty. They are grandparents, aunts and uncles, sisters and brothers who are taking care of children while their moms and dads in uniform are away."

"These women and thousands of others set a standard of excellence that enables women who serve today to take on even greater responsibilities," Mrs. Obama said.

After receiving her B.S. degree in Business from the University of Illinois, General Vaught enlisted in the Air Force in 1957. She rose through the ranks in the comptroller area, serving in Europe, Vietnam and various posts in the United States. Along the way, she achieved numerous distinctions. In 1966, she became the first woman to deploy with a Strategic Air Command bombardment wing on an operational deployment. In 1972, she was the first female Air Force officer to attend the Industrial College of the Armed Forces. In 1980, she became the first woman promoted to Brigadier General in the comptroller career field. In 1982, she was appointed Commander, U.S. Military Entrance Processing Command, North Chicago, Illinois, the largest command, geographically, in the military. In addition, she served as Chairperson of the NATO Women in the Allied Forces Committee and was the senior woman military representative to the prestigious Secretary of Defense’s Advisory Committee on Women in the Service. When she retired in 1985, she was one of only seven women generals in the Armed Forces, and only one of three in the Air Force.

She has received numerous military decorations and other honors, including the Defense and Air Force Distinguished Service Medals, the Air Force Legion of Merit, the Bronze Star, and the Vietnam Service Award with four stars. She is also the first woman to command a unit receiving the Joint Meritorious Unit Award.

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