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Tenth Anniversary of the Women’s Memorial (Arlington, VA)
As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, VA, Saturday, November 03, 2007

Thank you, Lance Corporal Babani, for that kind introduction.  Congratulations, by the way, on becoming a Marine and attaining American citizenship.  If the Marines will allow me for just a moment, I will speak on their behalf – and for Americans at large – and tell you that on both counts we’re proud to call you one of our own.

 

I also want to acknowledge General Wilma Vaught of the U.S. Air Force, the guiding spirit of the Women’s Memorial.  As General Vaught has explained, her involvement with the memorial goes back to 1987, when she couldn’t make it to a board meeting and so they elected her head of the project in absentia.  I know something about that feeling.

 

At the dedication of this majestic installation in 1997, the keynote address was given by Senator Bob Dole, a fellow Kansan and one of America’s most famous wounded warriors.  Senator Dole pointed out the etched-glass ceiling that graces the Women in Military Service for America Memorial.  He called it “a lens through which we can better see and appreciate the dedication and sacrifice” of American service women.

 

In every war and every generation, American women have served the cause of freedom, going all the way back to the Revolution. Those we honor now number some two and a half million, and counting.  A good deal has happened since the memorial went up – to put it mildly.  What has not changed is our respect for women throughout history who have stepped forward in defense of their families, their communities, and their country.

 

In his keynote address, Senator Dole noted that every single woman honored here “volunteered to serve.”  But I wonder if the word “volunteer” quite captures what women did for many years.  For a long time, women weren’t allowed to sign up.   So they simply showed up.

 

The Civil War provides several cases in point, like Mollie Bean, a twice-wounded Confederate soldier, who disguised herself as a man in order to enlist.  Sarah Malinda Blalock pretended to be Samuel Blalock and rode as a pro-Union irregular with her husband.  Most famous of all, Mary Walker – who earned the Medal of Honor – was a trained surgeon but was not allowed to operate on the Union soldiers she cared for at Bull Run.  By 1864, though, she was commissioned a surgeon in the Union Army.

 

Perhaps we should call that “power volunteering.”

 

That kind of desire may come as a surprise to some.  In our democracy today, we are used to hearing a lot about our rights, our civil liberties, and even the entitlements of citizenship.  We hear much less about the duties and responsibilities of citizenship.  Yet consider the Americans honored by this memorial.  What right did they assert?  They asserted their right to take responsibility for the defense of the nation.  They demanded duty.  They made the case for being included in service and sacrifice.  To do that marks a very special kind of patriotism.

 

And the military heeded their demand . . . eventually.  Not always swiftly, not always with a smile, the military gave women the opportunity to come in through the front door rather than sneak in the back.

 

For much of the modern era, whether in the Army Nurse Corps, the Navy Nurse Corps, the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve, the Coast Guard Women’s Reserve, the WASP, or a host of other units and organizations, women were determined to contribute to the fight.  Their contributions were and are crucial.  Many of these deserve mention – so very many that I hope you will excuse me, an old intelligence officer, for choosing one particular example.

 

In 1942, the Navy hired an Ohio cash-register company to build a machine that could unscramble the Enigma codes used by the Germans.  It assigned 600 WAVES – Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service – to work at the company.  So secret was this undertaking that the WAVES did not know why they were assembling all of those cipher-wheels, cables, and wires.  Some of the WAVES were later transferred to Washington, learning that the project was a system of 200 decoding machines – a kind of primitive computer.

 

WAVE Veronica Mackey Hulik said: “It still boggles my mind . . . that first we helped to build this computer and then [we] ran it.”  They were part of an Anglo-American decryption effort that allowed the Allies to sink hundreds of German U-boats, shortening the war by months and saving countless lives.

 

None of the 600 ever broke their vow of silence – not during the Second World War, not even for decades afterward.  In fact, many of these women died without divulging to friends or loved ones what they did during the war.

 

Neither those WAVES nor other military women were properly recognized at the time or in the years that followed.  That is why it was so important to establish this memorial.  Four years after it was built, our nation was attacked.  And more than 180,000 service women have been deployed to distant and dangerous battlefields, serving in unprecedented and extraordinary ways.

 

Consider that in 1997, when the memorial was new, few women staffed the crews of aircraft carriers.  It is routine now.

 

In 1997, women were new at training to be fighter pilots.  Within weeks of September 11, 2001, female pilots were in the skies above  Afghanistan – a reality that must have been a grim and galling surprise to the Taliban, who would not let a woman drive, educate herself, or even walk down a public street unescorted.

 

In the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts, there are few front lines; women are coming in contact with the enemy.  They are performing with courage and distinction.  Two years ago, a military police officer – Sergeant Leigh Ann Hester of the Kentucky National Guard – was awarded the Silver Star in Iraq with two others in her unit, for repulsing an enemy ambush on their convoy.  Sergeant Hester is the first female Silver Star honoree since World War II.

 

Women have shared in the burdens and the tragedies of these wars.  Nearly 100 women have been killed and more than 550 wounded in Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom.

 

They have shown character and true grit.  One Army captain – a Black Hawk helicopter pilot – who’s since become a public figure, Tammy Duckworth, was asked by a reporter how she adjusted to life-altering injuries.  Duckworth cited the love and the support of her husband Bryan – the love and support he gives her on good days and bad.  Then she cracked a joke, and I quote: “He annoys me, I annoy him.  He chews gum with his mouth open, I leave my [artificial] legs lying around on the floor.”

 

We have a moral obligation to see that the care provided to all of our troops is the very best.  I take that obligation very seriously.  Any recovery is tough enough; women have the extra challenge of recuperating in a military health-care system that was not originally designed with them in mind.  That system – indeed all of our institutions for caring for our troops and their families – must continue to be improved to serve today’s armed forces – in which 15 percent of the total force is female, nearly double what it was three decades ago.

 

There are few areas of our military where women have not shown themselves to be skilled and dedicated leaders.  I will close with the story of one:

 

Laura M. Walker thrived at West Point, where she was a cadet first sergeant and command sergeant major, before graduating in 2003.  She deployed the next year to Iraq as an engineer, and wore the combat patch of the Fourth Infantry Division – a distinction she shared with both of her grandfathers from their service with that division in World War II and Vietnam.  After she deployed to Afghanistan in 2005, one of First Lieutenant Walker’s jobs was publicizing the hard-won engineering achievements of Task Force Pacemaker.  In vivid dispatches, she conveyed the harshness of the place but also the hope of the people.

 

Her unit was carving a road out of the rocky terrain between Kandahar and Tirin Kot, a few hundred meters at a time, over many months.  In July 2005, she wrote an article called “The Route to Democracy,” and she said that finishing the road “is another blow to the primary weapons of the Taliban, isolation and hardship.”

 

When the road opened, Laura Walker would not be at the ribbon-cutting with her unit.  She was killed three weeks before, in Delak, Afghanistan.  Later, her mother said: “She died fighting those who would do us harm.  She died for us.  For all of us.”

 

From time immemorial women have known what it is to put others first.  Their selflessness in our time – their sacrifice, which is helping the United States and its allies defeat a pitiless enemy – is both a breaking of new ground and a reaffirmation of something that runs very deep.  It was said long ago by a visitor to America, Alexis de Tocqueville, that the American woman “thinks for herself, speaks with freedom, and acts on her own impulse.”  I would add that she also chooses to defend freedom – her own and that of others.  On this hallowed ground, we are obliged and privileged to honor her today and for generations to come.

 

Thank you.