Female veterans, trailblazers who served in the military decades ago, received a hero's welcome yesterday after arriving in the nation's capital on the first all-female honor flight.
"Best day of my life" is how retired Army Sgt. Maj. Sue Williams described the visit, which included stops at Arlington National Cemetery and the World War II Memorial.
Williams, who retired in 1995 after nearly three decades of service, helped lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns. "I could have died and gone to heaven right then," she said.
The women, from wars including World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War, traveled with Honor Flight Tri-State, which covers southern Ohio, northern Kentucky and southeast Indiana.
They arrived to a hero's welcome for the day-long trip, receiving applause, handshakes and greetings of "thank you for your service" at all the sites they visited.
"It's a dream come true," according to Sara Abrams, who served in the Army from 1963 to 1964. She said she never imagined a day like this would happen.
She was thrilled, she said, by the warm welcome from service members and the public. People were everywhere "cheering everybody on," she said. "It's really great. The people are just fabulous."
Cheryl Popp, the director of Honor Flight Tri-State, said she expects there to be more all-female honor flights. There were 250 applications for 140 seats on the airplane.
The veterans were from all the services, she said, and included younger female veterans who were partnered up as a guardian for an elder veteran for the journey, she said.
"It's been historic. I think you can kind of feel it wherever you go," Popp said.
Air Force veteran Andrea Kovar posed at the World War II Memorial in front of the quote from the late Army Col. Oveta Culp Hobby, the first director of the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps, which later became the Women's Army Corps.
The quote etched into the stone -- "Women who stepped up were measured as citizens of the nation, not as women... This was a people's war and everyone was in it" -- also graced the back of the shirts the Honor Flight veterans.
"I've never been here. This whole thing has been absolutely amazing and I wish I would have met Col. Hobby," stated Kovar, who served from 1963 to 1966.
When asked about her time with the Honor Flight, Kovar said it was an emotional experience. "I have been crying all day," she said, adding that she loved visiting Washington. "It's a beautiful city and I'm glad I'm here."
Trailblazer Greets Trailblazers
Retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Wilma Vaught greeted the women at the Women In Military Service For America Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery. She is the president of the board of directors at the women's memorial foundation.
It was a proud moment and very inspiring to see the female veterans, said Vaught, who retired in 1985. She was the first woman selected for promotion to brigadier general in the comptroller career field.
"Every job that I had that was my assigned job when I was in service, I was the first woman to ever hold that job," she said.
"This put pressure on me to be sure that I did it in such a way that another woman would have an opportunity to fill that job," she said. "To a degree, that situation in many instances still exists today."
She noted how two female soldiers recently became the first women to pass the Army Ranger course. If they get an opportunity to serve as Rangers, Vaught said, they too will get the chance to "prove that women can do it."
A Grateful Nation
The veterans are "simply inspiring," Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald said at the women's memorial during a luncheon program.
The nation honors them for their "fundamental sense of duty and courage," McDonald said.
"You didn't sign up to shatter glass ceilings; you came to serve and you served with distinction," he said. "But you knew the stakes were high, if you failed, it might make it much harder for those who followed you."
There is another part of being the first, he said, explaining the women were often considered outsiders or intruders. "Yet, you refused to quit," he said.
"Our nation is grateful. We're grateful for the challenges you've endured and overcame and the sacrifices you've made that men simply didn't have to make," he said. "The service you rendered to this nation is more valuable than you could ever have imagined.”
Rory Brosius, the deputy director of the White House Joining Forces initiative, sent greetings from first lady Michelle Obama, and applauded the women for their service.
"During times when our country called upon you, you stood up, you raised your hand, and you served. Your contributions meant that our country was better equipped for missions all around the world," Brosius said.
"You are all trailblazers and your service has inspired many generations of women," she said.
Brosius read a letter from Mrs. Obama thanking them for their inspiring service and the important role they played in moving the country forward. Each veteran received their own copy of the official letter from the first lady.
(Follow Lisa Ferdinando on Twitter: @FerdinandoDoD)