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October 22, 2012

Military women celebrate memorial's 15th anniversary

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.

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