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When Wilma Vaught earned a business degree in 1956 and went looking for a job in American industry, she discovered women were not welcome in leadership positions. Seeking broader horizons and better opportunities, she entered the U.S. Air Force Reserve in 1957 as a second lieutenant. Over the following 28 years on active duty Vaught served in a variety of positions both at home and abroad—including a yearlong tour in Vietnam—and in September 1980 she became the first woman in the U.S. armed forces promoted to brigadier general from the comptroller career field. Following her retirement in 1985 Vaught spent 29 years as director of the Women in Military Service for America Memorial Foundation, helping to spearhead the creation of the memorial at Arlington National Cemetery that honors all women who have served, or are serving, in the nation’s armed forces.

Vaught spent 28 years with the Air Force, then another 29 as director of the Women in Military Service for America Memorial Foundation. (Illustration by Randy Glass Studio)

When promoted to brigadier general, did you see yourself as a standard-bearer for women?
Long before, about the time I made lieutenant colonel, I had come to feel that as senior officers women needed to be visible. We needed to be out there encouraging women they could have careers in the military beyond making captain or major and didn’t have to leave at the 10-year point, as so many did during that time. They would have great careers going, be married and have children, and they would give it up to be with the family.

As a lieutenant colonel and colonel I was invited to give speeches. While stationed at the Pentagon, I was constantly going to promotion boards. I had opportunities to see how other women were doing in the military, and I made a point of telling them what I thought they should be thinking about and planning for. So when I got promoted to brigadier general, there wasn’t any question in my mind that I stood out, and that I had to be an example for women in the military. I tried very hard to do that throughout my career.

Did your military service preclude you from having a more traditional personal life?
I never felt that. I like traveling, and I got to travel. And, of course, as an officer I had the opportunity to do what I really wanted to do—manage and supervise people.

Did you experience any gender discrimination?
Very little. I spent the major portion of my career being one of a very small number of women in any particular place. I used to say—and I believe this to be true—that if I did something wrong, it was going to be very visible. But on the other hand, if I did it right, then I may have gotten more credit or visibility than I really deserved.

How would you like others to regard your military career?
I would like to be remembered as a leader, as someone who was a good example and who helped people.

More than anything I would like to be remembered for the role I played in getting the Women in Military Service Memorial built, because that was something so long overdue. Women hadn’t been recognized for what they did to support the country beginning with the American Revolution. Nothing was being done to capture the history of women in the military, or to put that on display so that other women coming along in the armed forces could see what their predecessors had done and be encouraged in their own careers.

While I was working to get the memorial built, in my mind I was always doing it to pay specific tribute to Lt. Col. Ruth Blind, the deputy director of personnel when I was at Barksdale Air Force Base. She took me under her wing and told me the things I needed to learn if I were going to be a career officer—serving on committees and boards and things like that. To a great degree I owed my success in the military to her.

‘We’ve gathered the service records of nearly 261,000 women. That is so meaningful’

How did you become involved with the memorial project?
While I was still on active duty and the senior ranking woman in the armed forces, I was asked to speak on behalf of the memorial, as the resolution was going through Congress. I was also chairing the Committee on Women in the NATO Armed Forces at the time and traveling quite a bit, so I was unable to take on the task, and they got somebody else.

The legislation authorizing the memorial was signed into law in 1986, and that December I got a phone call asking me if I would serve on the board of directors. I started that in January 1987. I went to a few meetings, then in March I got a phone call from a Marine Corps colonel who was also on the board. She asked, “Why weren’t you at the meeting?” I replied, “I forgot all about it. What did you do?” She said, “We elected officers, and you’re the new president.” I stayed president for 29 years.

What were the most important aspects of your work on the memorial project?
First was fundraising. Raising money is a difficult thing. There were many times I was very discouraged. But I thought, This may be the only time we have this opportunity, and we must take advantage of it. So I would not give up.

Second was a willingness to go out and talk to people, to try to convince them to support the effort, and to remind them this is their memorial.

How have visitors responded to the memorial?
We have heard from many people about what the memorial means to them, especially in the context of leaving a record of their military service that generations of their family can come see. We’ve gathered the service records of nearly 261,000 women. That is so meaningful. Even though I am no longer president, letters and emails still flow in addressed specifically to me, thanking me and telling me how happy the senders are that the memorial, a record of their service to the nation, was created during their lifetimes.

It’s been especially pleasing to hear the number of men who said this was long overdue. And it gives me a great deal of satisfaction to hear people say, “Oh, what a wonderful building this is—such a different thing than the other memorials.” That makes me feel good, that we did the right things when we built it.

What would you like to see in future for the memorial?
Most of all that it remains open.

It’s important for people to donate, to help support the memorial. But it’s just next to impossible to get the amount of necessary funding [through donations] needed to keep it going the way it should go. I’m hoping the memorial will be funded through the Defense Department, as it should be, as other similar institutions are. I’m not sure it will stay open unless we’re able to get such support. MH