Retired Air Force Brigadier General Wilma Vaught served in the United States Air Force for over 28 years, retiring in 1985 as one of the most highly decorated women in U.S. history. Throughout her career, General Vaught forged new paths and pioneered opportunities for the servicewomen who would follow. A Vietnam veteran, she was one of the few military women in that war who were not nurses. And, when she was promoted to brigadier general in 1980, she was one of a handful of women in the world who had ever achieved that distinction.
While her military accomplishments are extraordinary, General Vaught’s most lasting contribution will be her successful efforts related to the Women In Military Service For America Memorial where she was the driving force that built and now operates the $22.5 million memorial. For her official military bio, click here.
Amanda Huffman: Welcome to the show. I’m excited to have you here. Thank you. Let’s dive in with the first question of why did you decide to join the military?
Gen Wilma Vaught:: I was working at a plant that was operated by the federal government making heavy water for weapons. I worked for the Dupont company. And I kept looking. And I wasn’t seeing that women were doing very well, with the exception of one who was vice president. But her last name was DuPont. And my name wasn’t DuPont. And so I decided after about six or seven years that I wanted to go someplace else where I would have an opportunity for promotion. So I decided I would leave now this turned out to be a very smart decision, because about three days after I had resolved the issue of going into the military, and had raised my right hand and had been sworn in as a Second Lieutenant, I found out that they were going to close that plant. So I would have lost the job anyway.
Amanda Huffman: Wow. So you felt a little bit like you’re stuck and you wanted to join the military and you thought that would be a way to help you get promoted and move up the ranks?
Gen Wilma Vaught: Well, I hoped I would get promoted, but my promotion came in a rather strange way because I had graduated from college, or some six or eight years. And I received a letter from a major who served in the Army telling me that I could get a commission a direct commission as a Second Lieutenant if I had the right background if I was interested. So I decided I would be interested. And so then, when I got that, then I ended having to decide, well, now do I really want to be in the Army? Or do I want to be in the Air Force or something else?
Air Force or Army
Amanda Huffman: So how did you make that decision? You say you were thinking Army or Air Force, How did you decide on which one to pick?
Gen Wilma Vaught: It happened that there were two fellows who had served in World War Two, who had served in the Army. One of them had left the Army after several years, in fact, he retired. I think the second one had gone to the Air Force after serving in the Army. So they both considered me as a female going into the Air Force or the Army. And they decided that I would have greater opportunities in the Air Force as a female than I would in the Army. And that that’s what I should do. So I decided I would check to see if the Army or the Air Force had a similar program to what the Army had that I could get a direct commission as a Second Lieutenant. So I drove over to Chanute Air Force Base, which was near the University of Illinois where I’m going and talk to the people there and found out that they had a similar program, and that I could see if I wouldn’t be accepted. And if so I could go into the Air Force.
Amanda Huffman: So they felt like the Air Force would have better opportunities because you’re a woman. And that was the main driving factor.
Gen Wilma Vaught: Yes, it was. And I think they were correct in what they said, when you think about it, particularly at that period of time. The men…they were the military and they went out by themselves to fight with the equipment. Where in the Air Force, you had a very small number of people or planes and you had other jobs that some of them were related that women could do, and you had opportunities that you didn’t have because of the difference in the way they fought the war. So it’s the way it worked out.
Amanda Huffman: And I feel like those changes for women kind of just recently came about in 2016 when they opened up all jobs to women because that was a big limiting factor for women. And it would be even more so years earlier.
Gen Wilma Vaught: It certainly was.
Amanda Huffman: What was your job when you’re in the Air Force? What were you doing?
Gen Wilma Vaught: I had various jobs when I was in the Air Force. I went through the training program that was three months long, down at Lackland Air Force Base. And I was hoping to get away from working in supply and things like that because that’s what I’ve been doing with the DuPont company. And so I went into training for the computers, which were a very new thing back then. And I also got some training for the comptroller field. And that was how I got started.
When I was assigned to my first base. I was supposed to be assigned to the computer to data. And so I reported to where I was assigned Barksdale Air Force Base in Shreveport, Louisiana. And the first person I met there when I reported one evening was a very young female enlisted person who told me I was going to be the new commander of their squadron. And I said I’m not going to do that I’m on a direct assignment to work in data. She says I think you’re wrong. So the next day when I reported, I took my orders, it said this was direct, a directed duty assignment. And they told me, “No, they needed somebody to be the commander of the women’s Squadron” and that they needed me to do that. And I said, “I don’t see how when you read what this says, you can do that.” So then they told me I would be assigned to that office, but that wouldn’t be where I would report I wouldn’t go report at the barracks where the women lived and where my office would be until they found somebody else to do that job. And then I could go to my duty assignment in data.
Woman in Charge
Amanda Huffman: So what were you doing? Were you kind of just like managing all the enlisted troops, the women enlisted troops?
Gen Wilma Vaught: We had 200 or so women. And so I was managing, they’re staying in the rooms there. It was an interesting exercise for me. One of the things that I remember so vividly was the chaplain said, I want you to come and talk to me. So I went over to talk to him and he said, You need to understand that there are some of the things that you might tell one of your women perhaps who may be pregnant or something like that. And what you say can end up as a law question. You need to send them over to me when they come and tell you they have a problem they need to talk to you about you send them over to me to talk to them because I don’t have to report to the law. So that stayed with me all the rest of my career.
Amanda Huffman: Yeah, it sounds like you were kind of thrown in. Like, here you go, and you’re in charge.
Gen Wilma Vaught: And one of the things we didn’t learn when I was at Lackland, Air Force Base was how to be in a parade. And one of the first things I learned is we were going to be in a parade with all the male units. Well, that was a real thing. So one of the sergeants got me some information on how what you had to do in a parade. So I started learning about halt and all those signs and that turned into an experience because I can remember going as we got started to go over there for the parade, we came, we marched off where they lived, and I couldn’t think of what they were what I was supposed to say to get him to turn. And they were about to march into a ditch. And I finally just told him to stop and turn right.
And so then we got over to the gate to go on the base and I couldn’t remember what I was supposed to say this to get them to stop and I finally just said stop. And we marched in the position and we were not quite positioned next to the men that were next to us. And I said, we didn’t stop quite where we were now when I say go, I want you to go take two steps to the right. And then two steps forward and then will be fixed. Well, needless to say, the fellows heard and were laughing like crazy over there.
Well, interestingly, we took first place, because they march so well women march better than men do. I concluded, and we won first. And what that meant was that I didn’t have to go to the next parade. And I want you to know I spent the rest of my whole career and I never had to march in another parade. Of course, the reason for that was that I left, they did find the person to replace me. There’s the commander, and I went over to where the data people were, I had an opportunity and there was a lieutenant colonel female who had served during World War Two. And she told me they were doing a check to find out who would like to have a regular commission, which would mean that I wouldn’t be somebody to serve for a long period of time. So I was only in for four years. I said, Oh, I don’t know that I want to stay. She said I want you to go take that test. So I went and took the test and I was selected as a regular officer. And what that did was that moved me up to the top of the list to go overseas. And I really wanted to go west to go to overseas someplace to Hawaii or someplace like that. And they sent me to Spain. Retrospectively, that was a great decision on their part, Matt really enjoyed it.
Amanda Huffman: So what was it like to go to Spain? How old were you when you went to Spain?
Gen Wilma Vaught: Well, I guess I would have been in my 20s, probably about 24 at that point, and I was signed there as the being charged with the computers, but they really hadn’t gotten the computers yet. So that wasn’t a problem. In the base, I was assigned to they were still getting it built. And there were Nurses there who were females, and there was one enlisted woman. And I was there as a second lieutenant. And we were all of we two were all of the women who are assigned to the base. So that was very interesting in itself. So I learned an awful lot. And I had about three or four people working for me in the comptroller office. So that was interesting. I signed up down in the city to study Spanish, which I had studied some in college so that I could speak the language there. And that turned into a good thing because the commander liked the way I translated better than they did with the Spanish translator. So he usually took me to certain events to translate for him and to make sure that he was doing the right thing.
Now our commander was a Colonel, we were the general officer businesses as that base. And of course, the Spanish didn’t have any women and therefore, so this was a big thing for them to meet me as a second lieutenant of female in the military. It was the greatest assignment of my whole career. In many respects.
Volunteer, Do the Job, People Will Notice
Amanda Huffman: Was it challenging to be one of the only women and wasn’t lonely?
Gen Wilma Vaught: Well, what I learned was, and this was a lesson, because most of the places that I was assigned for some years, I was one of very few women assigned there, being willing to volunteer was a good thing to do. And if you volunteered for when they had a special job, and you did well at it, you were going to be visible to people, and they would like having you around. And that’s what I learned as a lesson there in Spain, and I carried that with me for some years for years to come.
Amanda Huffman: And I think that’s the good advice for women today for people in the military to volunteer and do the job well, and people will notice.
Gen Wilma Vaught: I believe it’s still a smart thing to do that when there’s something that you can volunteer for, to volunteer, if you think you can do it at all.
Amanda Huffman: So where did you go after Spain?
Gen Wilma Vaught: I was assigned to Orlando to McCoy Air Force Base, which was a B52 KC135. So we had the big bombers, fuel replacement aircraft there. So that was a good thing. Now that was an incident. I was there as a Captain. I’ve been promoted that much. And I’ve gone through a series while I was there in Spain when they had gone they checked my physical exam, becoming a registered officer. And lo and behold, they decided that they weren’t going to give me a waiver on my eyesight, which I had a waiver going in. I was going to be discharged in a matter of three months. Well, this was a big fight. I had come back to the States during that period of time and fought this battle, and ended up going to my senator from Illinois. And he helped me in and I was able to be signed up as a reservist, but they kept me. And so that’s what I was when I went to Florida. I was a reservist and where I was, there was a lieutenant colonel female, there was a nurse who was a captain, and there was one enlisted woman who was there with her husband, and we were the total female, military people at that big base. So that was interesting.
Amanda Huffman: It’s crazy because I felt like a minority when I was in there were two female officers in like 10 or 15 enlisted troops just in our Squadron, not the base of the squadron. And I felt like we were a minority, but to be like one of like, less than five for the whole base is even. It’s crazy how much has changed. And I think sometimes we think, oh, there hasn’t been that much change. But hearing your story makes me realize that there’s been a lot of change.
3000 Men and Me
Gen Wilma Vaught: It was interesting. There’s the same thing that happened to me there that it happened in Spain when I first went there among the men who worked for me, and that was, they didn’t think they wanted to work for a woman. But after I’d been there, two or three at least two or three months, they would start catching me and stopping me and they’d say, you know, I wanted to be transferred when I heard we were going to have a woman in charge, but I would work for you in a place so I hope you’re Going to stay. And this I felt came because I did everything I could to help my people. And they hadn’t been they’ve been ignored as far as getting promotions were concerned. And I took that on and they began to get some of them again to get promotions from there squadrons. So that was like that.
And so that became much of what I did, given tasks to do certain tasks for the Colonel who was the commander of the base and it ended and I was transferred from the office, which I was originally in which was comptroller to work just outside at where he was and I had worked for his office was and then the end result of that tournament, pretty exciting thing because I had decided that I wanted to go get my master’s degree and I’d applied to do that and been accepted. And the Vietnam War started. And they gave our wing, was charged to go to Guam and be in charge of the bombing that was taking place in Vietnam.
So the commander told me, he wanted me to go with them. And I said, No, I can’t do that. Because women can’t go on a mission like that for the strategic air command. And he said, No, I want you to go and I said, Well, further, I’m supposed to go to Arizona and get my master’s degree.
No, you call them and tell them that you want that delay, that you have to go to Guam. So I finally called and they said it would be okay if I did that. So I went over there and that turned into an interesting thing. So I still was involved with the Vietnam War before the War really broke out full force and before so many people started going. There were 3000 men in the unit in our Squadron there, there was another Squadron that came from Montana. So the two of them but my boss was the commander of the whole thing.
There were 3000 men and me that was an interesting margin. And it was a wonderful assignment. I got to do many things that as you know somebody who was a non-pilot non any of those things, I could go out to the flight line and see the planes take off and into see them working on planes. And then I did things my boss wanted, like when the commander strategic air command came, I was responsible for preparing the things that we were going to tell him and everything that went with that for him to see on the screen. I was responsible for that. I remember that particular time I went on Monday morning to work. I work just outside the commander’s office, and I got to go home and I got the whole speech thing done on Wednesday, and I didn’t get to sleep from Monday to Wednesday. So it was interesting. I was there for six months. That was one of the greatest memories of my life and working for that commander was a great thing because I got to do things that he assigned me to do that I never would have had under any circumstances and he trusted me to get them done. So I came back and went to Alabama, that school which has a football team. I learned that so I went there and got my master’s degree and then as I finished My master’s degree in got my next assignment. I was assigned to Vietnam.
A Woman in Vietnam
Amanda Huffman: Yeah. So I think a lot of people don’t know that women were sent overseas from Vietnam except for nurses and other medical staff. That’s the only thing that I really know about, have talked to anyone about. So can you talk about what you were doing in Vietnam?
Gen Wilma Vaught: Well, most of the women who served there were nurses or doctors. They weren’t things like I was. And so when I got there, there were four or five of us females assigned to the headquarters, where the general who was in charge of the whole command was, and I couldn’t believe it when I went to the office, which I was assigned to. And I found that my job was to report once every three months to the Secretary of Defense, our cost reduction during the 30 months. And I said, Well what to do once you’ve done that, then there was a man that was doing that when I got there. He says, Well, you wait till three months are up and then do the next report. I said you don’t do anything in between. He said, No, they didn’t assign me anything to do. And I thought this will be terrible. So I went through the files they had. And that became very helpful because when people want to know something, I was the one who looked in the files, and I could tell them, and so I begin the next thing I knew I was given the job of being the person who was the one who worked with the auditors who are in so if they wanted to go someplace, they would come and see me and I would make the arrangements.
And when they made their reports, I went to all the staff people and got responses to that, and then got them signed and sent them to Washington. So that’s what I did during my year there. One of the most exciting moments was one night they bombed the building next to us about a block away, which was a place where the Vietnamese got their vegetables and things like that. And it happened about six o’clock in the morning and I thought, oh my goodness, we’re going to be bombed. And that’s where my quarters were in a hotel there. And so I was going to go up to the ceiling, up to the roof and see what was happening. And somebody knocked on my door, and they said, What are you doing? I said, I’m getting ready to go up to the top. And this was a fellow major, we were both majors. She said, “That’s what I knew you were going to do. I came to tell you you can’t do that.” About that time they stopped bombing, so there wasn’t a point in going up to the roof.
Amanda Huffman: Yes, she knew your spirit.
Gen Wilma Vaught: She knew my spirit.
Amanda Huffman: I liked how you talked about how you were given like one job and you knew that wasn’t enough to keep you busy. So you found stuff to do and then ended up finding more to do. Is that something that you did like throughout your career, you always were trying to do stuff. And I liked when you talked earlier about taking care of your people.
Gen Wilma Vaught: That worked for me, everywhere. I think I want and I work with my people to encourage them to get. So they had more skills if they were going to college, to go to college, get their education, so they would be qualified for other jobs.
One of the exciting things about knowing I was going to Vietnam I expected I would have to go down and I’d never had to be qualified with weapons and I thought I needed to be qualified. So I checked with the Air Force and said, do I need to get cleared for having a weapon? They said, No, you don’t need to do that as a woman going to Vietnam.
Well, this just didn’t seem safe to me. So I got a hold of my brother in law, who was a very skilled person with weapons. And I went home, I learned how to fire rifles and a handgun. And then I went back to the Air Force and told him that I wanted to qualify if It was okay?
And they said it was, so I went down, and I got there who should be there? The only people there were a bunch of men who were qualified to go fire on and win prizes because they were the experts. But I went ahead and I fired and into this. So when the sergeant was doing this with me, he said, Okay, you’ve hit the target. It looks like you’ve qualified.
And I said, Are you sure? He said yes. And to this day, I’ve never been quite sure whether It was all those fellows firing at it or if it was just me. But I still have that thing they had up there, the shot full of holes that he said, what I did. And when I got to Vietnam, I was assigned to this hotel, where the two of us were because there were only five women, and the other three were quartered someplace else. The two of us were there. And the person I was replacing was with the Army. And she was one of the investigators for the Army. And so then she left and she said, you need to get a trade for my room because it’s a better room. And so when I, when she came to me, and that was the day, I went there, and she said, Well, I want to show you something here in the furniture.
And so she opens this drawer, and there are two rifles in there. And she had managed to acquire them because she had been there when they’d have an attack there in sangria. She said, Now, I didn’t have those because they approved it. But you can’t tell what may happen. And you may want these here and there are ammunition and the two rifles. So I had them there in the drawer in case I needed all the time I was there. So when I got ready to come back after my year and eight days there, I went over to the office, I found out there was an office where you turned in weapons. I went over there, and I said,
What can you turn in weapons that you were never given? And the man said, Oh, yes, we’ll take those. I said, Okay, I’ll get them here. So one of the fellows in my office, took the Jeep, we went down, back to my hotel, and we got my two weapons. So we took them there and turned them in.
Amanda Huffman: That is crazy to think about deploying overseas without a weapon?
Gen Wilma Vaught: That’s right,
Wearing Skirts in War
Amanda Huffman: Did you get to wear the fatigues while in Vietnam?
Gen Wilma Vaught: I thought we would surely wear slacks or something. I said no, I would just wear the ordinary skirt and top. And that’s what I did. That’s where I had a pair of slacks with them I wore when we exercised in the military when I was in training. I did one trip in a plane to the next nearest base with the auditors and I worked in my slacks. Other than that, I could work on the weekends, or we work seven days a week, but we usually had half a day off on Sundays. So quite frequently, I would put them on for that but I wore mine. My uniform skirt. It certainly is like it is today.
Amanda Huffman: And is that what you wore when you were in Guam too?
Gen Wilma Vaught: Yes. Wear what you’re authorized to wear.
Amanda Huffman: Something that happened, I think right around the time, if I did my math right, was in 1967, the 1948 women armed service integration act was changed. So what does that mean for you being in the military and being a woman and how did those changes affect you?
Gen Wilma Vaught: They finally because we were limited to how far we could be promoted. When women first went in, way back when they were limited to Lieutenant Colonel for a long time, for years going into World War Two they were that way. They couldn’t be promoted to General Officer, at all. And so there were only nine Colonel positions and they were temporary. You were only considered a colonel for the length of time you were assigned to that job, usually, that was you were in a very key position in charge of people like the ones who were in charge and the WACs and in charge of the WAF, the Women Air Force people or the Navy, or the Marine Corps, those positions were Colonels level or Captain for the Navy. So that finally changed in the get people promoted for quite a while, but it came. I was very fortunate. I was one of the first 35 or 40, who was promoted to Brigadier General.
Amanda Huffman: I think sometimes, well, even in my research, I didn’t realize how important that date was and how much that changed. It wasn’t just that women could serve in the military and the provision went away, but like it opened doors to being General Officers and to be where we are today.
Gen Wilma Vaught: That’s right. There were so many restrictions for women about what they couldn’t do and what they couldn’t do. And for the Navy, they were very restricted. They couldn’t go aboard the ship. Now a nurse could go and nurses went on ships during World War Two, for example, they can be there, but women doing something from the standpoint that they repaired something or the kind of things that many of the women did, couldn’t go on ships.
Now the reason for that had to do with the restrooms, they didn’t have a restroom for women. And this went on and on and on for years. And finally, one woman who was an enlisted woman, she couldn’t advance in her career because she needed to go and get experience on a ship out on the water. And she went and sued the commander of the Navy about that, that this was unfair. And she won.
The judge ruled that this was not right, that they couldn’t do this. And so that got changed finally, and I thought it was so funny when they decided that women could be assigned and they decided the whole bunch of them could go at one time, and they left Norfolk and they got on board ship. And guess what, in three months from the time they decided that it was okay for them to go then managed to figure out how they could make a restroom for the women on board that ship.
But then the same thing was true for flying aircraft. And it was 1970 something that they finally decided that women could learn to fly but they were very restricted as to what they could fly, and when they could fly, and then that certainly didn’t mean they could go fly into combat, and that finally changed when we were fighting in Iraq. One of the helicopter pilots was female. And she got assigned there. So it’s, it was just slow, slow progress.
Amanda Huffman: We talked earlier about the 2016 law change, and women were finally allowed to be in combat roles. And when I was deployed in 2010, I was on convoys. And people sometimes think that because women weren’t allowed to be in combat until 2016, that somehow, we were protected and we weren’t doing these things. But there’s been so many changes.
It’s all about Education
Gen Wilma Vaught: You can think at times about what you do, or in the military or anything you do for that matter of fact, one of the things that I am most proud that I did was I always tried to encourage people to get educated to do whatever they needed to do so that they could be available to do something else. I remember one fella that was stationed with me in Spain. And I said he was working for me as a matter of fact, I said, “You’ve got to go ahead, they offer these courses, you go take those courses.” This happened to be a blackfella. And he finally agreed to go and went, I got him started first on reading books because he was reading comics before that. So he started reading books and finally got him to go into this. And he continued on. And some years later, after a long after I retired, I received a letter from him or an announcement, and he had retired after making Chief Master Sergeant and he was teaching school.
And that all came about because I kept forcing him to go get an education. And when I came back from Vietnam, I was stationed at Dayton, Ohio, the Logistics Command there and there was a very talented woman there. She was about GS five or six. And I said, well, why don’t you get promoted to as you do so well? She said, Well, I don’t have the education. I said, “You go to college here that you can sign up. Why don’t you do that?”
“Oh, I don’t think I could do that at all.” I said, “You go over there. And I want you to take one course. And I want you to make sure it’s not something simple. Something that will be meaningful to you in getting your degree.” Some years after that, I happen to be at the airport. And this woman came up and she says, “I’m so and do that you knew when you were in Dayton” I said, “Well, how are you doing now?” She said, “I came up to tell you that I’m up here because I’m going to be promoted to GS 14.” And she said, “It’s all because you finally convinced me that I should get my education.” And there was just person after person. And you know if something that costs you nothing, and all you gotta do is just persuade people that got to do it. They’ve gotta keep educating.
Amanda Huffman: Yeah. And I think that shows the impact of like having a good leader, and you took the time to invest in people, and then they move forward. And it’s cool to hear story after story. I’m sure there’s a bunch more you could tell about people that you just push to get their education or to do that change and how it changed their life. So that’s really cool.
Gen Wilma Vaught: It can be an interesting life in the military.
Amanda Huffman: So you were at Wright Patterson AFB in Ohio, and then where did you go after that?
Gen Wilma Vaught: I was selected early for Lieutenant Colonel. And I was selected to go to a special training thing here in Washington. And so that was a year-long and I came to that. I was very fortunate when I was Selected early for Lieutenant Colonel that I was first picked to get to National War College, which is where I wanted to go. And then there was another woman selected. We were the first two women to be selected in 20. Some years when there been two other women select and in between, there hadn’t been any. So my background was closer to the Industrial college then hers was so she got selected for National War College. So it turned out she didn’t want to go there. So she quit. And then they filled it with a man and I couldn’t get transferred.
So I went to icap and there was only one of us, I was the third person to go to one of those two training programs. So that was one of the interesting things I did so there were like 50 men me at that training program.
Promoted to Brigadier General
Amanda: Where did you go after?
Gen Wilma Vaught: Well, from that I was assigned to the Pentagon. And I spent about four and a half years there. And from there, I got transferred to Andrews Air Force Base to their Systems Command. That was just a wonderful thing. It happened that my boss there at the Pentagon got transferred there to Andrews as a comptroller. And so I went over there as a budget officer, and then he got his second star, and I got promoted to replace him. And that’s when I had something that managed to get me my promotion to Brigadier General and that was a wonderful command working and being involved in seeing all the things that we were working to cause to happen, some of which were highly classified. But I thoroughly enjoyed that.
And then from that, I went to Illinois which was my home state to Great Lakes, which was Navy first went to the Army base, but it was being closed. So then I went to the Navy base there at Great Lakes. And I was the commander of the military entrance command, where we went around the 71 or two different bases around the country and to Guam and to Puerto Rico, where they recruited people that go on a service, they were all under us, or they signed up and we will and that’s what I did for my last three years and served and it was great.
Amanda Huffman: You were really busy traveling all over?
Gen Wilma Vaught: Yes, I was. I went to every base, Alaska, went there and it snowed but it was a great opportunity. And to see people as they were going into the surface, and the be him working for you the people that were going to select these people to go into the service. So I thoroughly enjoyed that.
Women In Service Memorial
Amanda Huffman: Yeah, you had an amazing career. And I loved hearing more and more details about all your experiences. But after you retired, you weren’t done doing stuff for the military. Let’s talk a little bit about the women in service memorial and what your role was.
Gen Wilma Vaught: Well, I had been out for a couple of years. And when they had formed the foundation that had been authorized by the Congress to build a memorial, paying tribute to the women who served in the military. And so there were about five of us, females in the Washington DC area who had been general of one type or another, one or two stars, and they others we’re not interested in taking over as president of that foundation. And I wasn’t either. And so they came and asked me and I finally said, All right, I will be a member, but I absolutely will not be president. So after about three months after I’d started at that, one evening, I was sitting at home and I got a phone call from a Marine Corps Colonel who was one of the board members.
And she said, “Why weren’t you at the meeting?”
I said, “What meeting?”
She said, “That board we’re on.”
I said, “I forgot about it. What did you do?”
She said, “We elected officers and you’re the new president.”
I said, “I told you I was not going to be president.”
She said, “I know that’s what you said. But you’re now the president.”
And I spent the first six or eight months trying to figure out how in the world because I wasn’t a fundraiser. I wasn’t a building builder. I wasn’t an architect. You know, can I get this done?
I finally decided as I traveled around, and I talked to women about the possibility of having a memorial, and they were so enthusiastic about it, the women who had served particularly during World War Two, they wanted to be recognized, they had never been recognized when they had a parade, where they lived, they never let the woman be in the parade. It was just a man.
So there were many things there. They put up memorials with the men’s name and didn’t put the woman’s name. So I finally decided that we had to do it, somebody had to do it and get it done, or we might never have another opportunity to do it. And that’s what I started working on, and fortunately, it was successful enough that we now have a memorial that I think we’re all proud of.
Amanda Huffman: Yeah, and one of the cool things about the memorial is that you can tell your story and the veteran, and I’ll put a link in the show notes if people want to do that. But you can tell the story. And then if someone comes to Memorial, they can look up your name, right?
Gen Wilma Vaught: That’s correct. That’s one of the features. So I was very touched on day one, I was there. And there were a couple of young fellows there. And one of them was calling the other, and he goes hey, we got to get on with the rest of what we’re trying to do. He said, I can’t go till I get my grandmother’s picture that’s here, the memorial, because she was in the service, and he didn’t leave until he got his picture of his grandmother. And I thought this is what this memorial is about that it’s a record for families forever.
Amanda Huffman: I don’t know if you noticed, but the logo for the podcast, I was at the memorial and I was looking at the displays. And at the end of the hallway, there were three pictures and it was a woman and she had a hat with a salute. And that’s where I got the idea from my logo. And so the memorial is kind of tied into the podcast because that was where I didn’t know what to do. And then I saw that picture and I knew exactly what to do.
Goal: Register All Women in Service
Gen Wilma Vaught: To me, one of the most, most important aspects of the memorial is the registration of women who served, because that’s what it’s about is to pay tribute to these women. Now, there’s another facet of it. And that is to tell the story because men and women don’t really know what the story is of what women have done. So it’s got history. And third is we were looking for a place to have it. It was to have a place where there was a relationship between being in the service and the memorial. And I think we accomplished that by having it there adjacent to Arlington National Cemetery. So, as I think about it, one of my challenges or one of the things I wanted to do before we had the dedication, I was hoping that we would have, I think my goal was 500. Well, I had a goal of 500,000 there had been two or 3 million women who served, so we were a long way from it, but I can think it was 1000. I was trying to get by dedication didn’t make it. We are now up to 269,000 women. So we’ve come a long way. And we’ve had women all around the country, sending in obituaries that they would see in the paper. It might be somebody they knew it might be somebody they didn’t know, they would send them in so that we could get them added in. So that would be a record. So we’ve come a long way. We’ve got a long way to go from 269,000 to three million, Register, here
Amanda Huffman: We have to get all of them, I need to be more active in sharing about it on social media. So I’m gonna start doing that.
Gen Wilma Vaught: There are two aspects of this that you know when you think about women who serve, the first thing you would think about are those women who were in one of the branches of the service. We also decided that we should include some women who did, what they did was significant. There were women who served overseas during the time of war and that were in the Red Cross. And they were there where there was action going on, that those type of women we should include, they also serve.
So we add some other women who were formed that were in that category that we felt should be included as they also serve, because they gave of their time gave their lives to be helpful to help our country and times of war as we think about it, it isn’t just the women who serve yesterday who should be registered. It’s women who are serving right now. And from the very beginning, and the first probably the first five people that registered, I was one of those. And I was out of the service I was in retirement, but we had very quickly we had some who are serving than that were registered in, all the way through, we have worked to encourage women who were serving to register and they register and stay in touch, while they’re registered when they get promoted when they get recognized for something. There are all sorts of reasons why you might add information to your registration, your rank changes, and you should change it to your new rank. It’s just going by the important thing, to get people’s names and record in there, from the first time. People who are just recently signed up, need to understand the importance of what they’ve done and the importance of registering early in the game and making sure that their name is there, you can make a donation to the memorial which is a nice name for people to do, but it is free, you do not have to donate to register. You do not have to donate to register somebody else. The important thing is that we get everybody registered that we possibly can.
Amanda Huffman: My last question, what advice would you give to young ladies that are looking to join the military?
Advice for Young Women
Gen Wilma Vaught: Well, one of the first things that you need to do, you need to understand that you need to take care of yourself. You need to take care of your people. And if you don’t take care of your people, you’re going to be assured they’re going to take care of you. And you may not like it too well, when they take care of you. Because I have known people who didn’t take care of their people and their people got rid of them.
The second thing is, don’t lose your sense of humor, some times is just really tough. And you need to be able to think about things so you don’t lose your sense of humor, you should have the courage to take and do volunteer work whenever you get that opportunity because it may be the opportunity to do something that may lead you to a promotion or to some other job or something. But don’t be afraid to take it and to do everything you can to encourage those you come in contact with, that aren’t doing what they need to do to have a better life in the future. You need to encourage them to go to college or do whatever it is that they need to learn to do a better job, whatever it is to live better to get along with people better so that they do that and so that they have a better life for themselves and maybe for you too because you’re in those surroundings.
Amanda Huffman: That’s great advice. Thank you so much for being a guest on the podcast this week. I really loved hearing your story and I’m just so thankful we got to do this.
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