Congresswomen, Military Leaders Honor Women Troops, Vets
By Sgt. 1st Class Kathleen T. Rhem, USA
American Forces Press Service
ARLINGTON, Va., May 22, 2002 As America prepares to commemorate Memorial Day this weekend, several congresswomen and military leaders gathered at Arlington National Cemetery to honor women who have died serving their country.
"We honor the rich legacy of service women in the past, the valor with which women serve today, and the promise of greatness inherent in the young women who dream of serving this great nation in the future," said Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald, a member of the Congressional Caucus on Women's Issues.
Former Women's Airforce Service Pilots Lorraine Z. Rodgers (left) and Elaine D. Harmon salute during the playing of Taps at an Arlington National Cemetery ceremony honoring women service members. Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Kathleen T. Rhem, USA.
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Millender-McDonald retraced the steps of women veterans through American history. "Women have served in all of America's major conflicts," she said. "During the American Revolution, women disguised themselves as men to join the Continental Army. During the wars of the 18th and 19th centuries and during the Civil War, women provided medical care, foraged for supplies, cooked, sewed and served as saboteurs, scouts and couriers."
She noted that more than 35,000 served in roles ranging from nurses, to telephone operators, to clerks. More than 350,000 women served in World War II. More than 200 women serving in the Women's Army Corps and Women's Airforce Service Pilots died in action or while ferrying aircraft. Eighty-eight women were held as prisoners of war.
Women have had an even more active role in the military services in recent history. "In the Gulf War, 35,000 of the 540,000 U.S. troops were women. Although they were not assigned to combat by law, these women ferried food, fuel and troops into combat areas. Two women were taken prisoners and 11 died," she said. "We have lost 14 active and retired military women since January 2000. Two women were lost on the USS Cole. Eleven were lost on Sept. 11, 2001 in the attack on the Pentagon, and one service woman has died during the war on terrorism."
During the ceremony, senior enlisted women from each service, including the Coast Guard, represented their fellow women service members. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, spoke to the crowd and assisted in laying a wreath at the Women in Military Service to America memorial at the gates to the cemetery.
"It's important that we all reflect on the service and sacrifice of the women who have served our armed forces," Myers said. "American women have endured torrential rains, blizzards, tropical swamps, blistering desert heat. They survived as prisoners of war, overcame death marches, and courageously faced hostile fire that, for some, cost them their lives.
"In these and so many other situations in peace and war, American service women have performed magnificently," he said.
Myers noted that American women would continue to perform a vital role in the nation's defense, with roughly 15 percent of today's service members being women.
He lauded the service of women A-10 pilots during Operation Anaconda in Afghanistan in March and women pilots and crewmembers flying over the Philippines. "I only provide these examples because they're absolutely routine examples of the many ways that women contribute today to our armed forces," he said.
The chairman said he and his wife, Mary Jo, were thrilled recently at the birth of their first granddaughter, Sophie Marie. "Should Sophie choose to join our uniform ranks, you can only imagine how proud that would make both of us," he said. "And I'm grateful that she's going to have that choice, and I'm grateful to those who have persevered and sacrificed to give her that choice."
Army Sgt. Maj. Diana Huron, the provost marshal sergeant major for the Military District of Washington, credits the Army with developing a "little Mexican girl from San Antonio" into "a confident, professional senior noncommissioned officer."
"What I am today is a direct reflection of the many service women of all branches that laid the foundation for me to fulfill my dreams," she said.
Huron joined the Army in 1980 but said she had never been more honored in her career than she was representing other women service members at the ceremony. "I can honestly say I've beaten the odds by having attained the rank of sergeant major," she said. "Considering less than one percent of the Army achieves this rank, only a fraction of the women reach this milestone."
Huron described how life in this country has changed since the attacks of Sept. 11. "We learned just how precious life is," she said. " We're blessed with extraordinary men and women who risk their lives each day so that each of us can live in peace and freedom."
She urged the crowd to remember Marine Sgt. Jeanette Winters, who died Jan. 9 in a plane crash in Pakistan, and other service men and women who have died in service to their country.
"Let us remember what we can achieve when we pull together as one nation, respecting each other with all our differences," she said. "And let us remember that by coming together we can fight any battle and face any challenge."