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Remarks by Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III at the 25th Anniversary Ceremony for the Military Women's Memorial (As Delivered)

Well, good morning, everybody. It’s great to be with all of you. What an impressive crowd.

And Phyllis, I want to thank you for that warm introduction. I couldn’t help but thinking as I was sitting there listening, “Who the heck is this old guy that you’re talking about?”

I want to congratulate you, Phyllis—you and your team—for what you’ve done to make today such a special occasion.

Beautiful weather. You know, I was thinking as we walked up to the building here, we should do this outside. But both myself and my military assistant are infantry guys. So if you put two infantry guys together outside, it will rain and it will be cold—so you made a good choice.

I am truly grateful for the tremendous women service members who shared their stories with all of us today. You’re a tough act to follow.

You know, Secretary McDonough and I were sitting there listening to these compelling testimonies, and we both said, “What the heck are we doing here? We’re only going to screw this up. This is really good.”

Tremendous, tremendous contributions to our nation. Thank you for your service, for your sacrifices. Thank you for the sacrifices of your families. It’s been a real treat to hear your individual stories today. Continue to do what you’re doing to inspire all those in the military and all those who support us in everything that we do.

And I’d also like to thank my colleague and my good friend, Secretary Denis McDonough, for his moving words.

Probably not something that you think about each and every day, but I will tell you that Secretary McDonough has done more for the Department in a short period of time than many have done in many, many years. He is an incredible intellect, and the hardest worker that I’ve ever been around, and a great friend. And so Denis, thanks for what you continue to do for veterans and their families.


Denis and I are working together to make good on our nation’s sacred promise. And that promise is to always take care of our service members, their families, and our veterans.

You know, we’re honored to have so many veterans with us today, including, as you heard earlier, Lieutenant Cecile Cover, who stepped up to serve nearly 80 years ago, during World War II.

Lieutenant Cover, thanks for everything that you’ve done for our country, your service, and for paving the way for future generations of women in uniform. Let’s give her another round of applause.


You know, it truly is amazing, but this site used to be a retaining wall that was badly in need of repairs.

But for the past two and a half decades, it’s been the centerpiece for visitors as they make their way into the hallowed grounds of Arlington. It has helped to fortify the progress that women have made in our armed forces. And it stands as a proud tribute to the bravery, strength, and sacrifice of every woman who has served our country.

So I want to thank the person who made this memorial a reality: Brigadier General Wilma Vaught.


In the Air Force, she was the first woman to hold every job that she had.

[Laughter and applause]

And after retiring, General Vaught agreed to join the board of directors for a new foundation. That foundation would honor women in the military. The way that General Vaught tells it, is that she missed a meeting…


and at the next meeting, she found out that she’d actually been elected their president.


And [she] tried hard not to miss any meetings going forward.

But it was through her sheer determination that we got this beautiful memorial—the first of its kind to honor all American women who have served. And that’s why it’s sometimes affectionately known as “the house that Wilma built.”


And I’m glad that we have ROTC cadets from General Vaught’s alma mater at the University of Illinois…


…who are here today and carrying on her legacy.                                                                             

Now, in the 25 years since the dedication of this memorial, there have been plenty more “firsts” for women in the U.S. military.

In 2005, then-Sergeant Leigh Ann Hester became the first woman to be awarded the Silver Star for valor in combat. 

In 2008, Army General Ann Dunwoody made history as the first woman to achieve the rank of four-star general.

And we’ve since had the first women four-stars in the Navy, the Air Force, and the Coast Guard as well.

In just a few years, we’ve gone from lifting restrictions on women’s service in combat to the first woman to lead a platoon from the elite 75th Ranger Regiment in combat.


We’ve now had three women to lead combatant commands, including General Jackie Van Ovost, who is currently at the helm of TRANSCOM, and General Laura Richardson, who is commanding SOUTHCOM.

And just last week, Colonel Nicole Mann became the first woman Marine to lead a NASA space flight.


Women have broken barriers in civilian service as well.

Today, the Secretary of the Army, Christine Wormuth, is the first woman in that post.


And my right hand, Dr. Kathleen Hicks, is the first Senate-confirmed woman to serve as Deputy Secretary of Defense.


The ranks, titles, and appointments of these outstanding patriots don’t just add to the “firsts” of history. They are truly the best leaders for so many of our most vital jobs.

So this is pretty simple: Our military needs the best warfighters in every domain, from the seas to cyberspace. We need the best combat-credible force and the best leaders who are ready to win across the full spectrum of conflict.

So if we were to limit those jobs to just men… who, by the way, represent less than half of the U.S. population…


…we wouldn’t always get the best.

So that’s just math.

To make sure that the United States continues to have the best fighting force in all the world, we must draw from the power of all of our people.

Now, a lot has changed for women in the U.S. military over the past several decades. But even with the progress that we’ve made, there’s still more to do. 

Getting rid of exclusions for women’s service was just a minimum. We’ve still got far more work to do to eliminate bias in our ranks and to eradicate sexual harassment and sexual assault in the United States military.


You know, it’s not enough for women to just be permitted to serve. We need a military where all of our troops can rise to their full potential—and defend our country with everything that they’ve got. A military where raising your family and serving your country are compatible—for both men and women in uniform.


And a military where everyone can contribute the full range of talents, and creativity, and strength to the mission of defending this exceptional nation.

So that’s how we’ll build on the legacy of the more than three million women who, since the earliest days of our nation’s founding, have stepped up to serve. That’s how we’ll out-smart, and out-innovate, and out-fight any potential adversary. And that’s how we’ll continue to stand ready to defend the nation.

You know, one of the greatest gifts of this memorial is the way that it gives voice to the stories of these women. 

Women like then-Chief Yeoman Loretta Perfectus Walsh. Back in 1917, she was the first woman to officially enlist in any branch of military service.

Now, she had a few alterations to make to the men’s uniforms, but she blazed a trail in that uniform. And that trail still leads the way forward, as we saw two years ago, when JoAnne Bass became the first woman to serve as Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force.


She is now the highest-ranking enlisted woman of any military service.

And this memorial also honors women like Colonel Mary Hallaren, who served in World War II.


You know, she was barely five feet tall. So to pass the height requirement at enlistment, she stood on her toes. And the recruiter asked her what the Army could do with someone so short. She replied, quote, “You don’t have to be six feet tall to have a brain that works.”


And this memorial honors women like Lieutenant Colonel Charity Adams. In World War II, as you heard, she commanded the Six Triple Eight Central Postal Directory Battalion.


It was the first and only unit of African-American women to deploy overseas during World War II.

Colonel Adams later said that she didn’t think about making history. She just knew that, given the opportunity and the training, she could do the job as well as or better than anybody else.

And we honor women like then-Lieutenant Jonita Bonham, who served in Korea.

Now, she was an Air Force nurse working on a C-54 that had been converted into a flying emergency room.

And one day, that C-54 crashed into the sea. And Lieutenant Bonham was trapped in the submerged plane. But she fought her way to the surface and swam through rough waters to grab onto the rope of a life boat. And even though she was badly wounded, she guided 17 other survivors to the raft.

And so a year after the crash, when she was asked how she survived that day, she said simply that it hadn’t occurred to her to die…


…so she didn’t.


As you heard, I graduated from West Point back in 1975, and I spent more than four decades in the Army. With each passing year, I was privileged to serve with more and more women at every level. And there is no question that our military has gotten better and better, with an even greater focus on standards and excellence.

Because patriotism knows no gender.

And neither does courage.

And men and women hear the same call to serve our great country.

And American women have always answered.

Now, I’ve got to tell you that I sat here this morning and listened the stories of our heroes of the past and listened to the amazing women tell their personal stories about their service to our country.

I felt this wave come over me. I was still flooded with memories of my service with some great women in our military.

So there’s one story I’ll share with you.

As many of you know, I was the deputy commander for operations for 3rd Infantry Division in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

And, of course, we know that we operated on one side of the river, and the Marine Corps operated on the other side, and we both raced up to very quickly take control of the city of Baghdad. I said quickly; it took some 22 days for that to occur—22 days of fighting.

But prior to going on that operation, you know, as a commander from a heavy command of operations, I was in charge of maneuvering the forces around the battlefield, calling in fires, to support those forces.

And so I had a forward command post that moved very rapidly on the battlefield. There were women in that command post—a little-known story.

And so I called all my troops in the command post together the day before we crossed the line of departure, and I said, “I have a responsibility to control this one. We’re going to win this one. We are going to win this one.”

And I said that in order for me to control this fight, I have to be up close to the front edge of the battlefield. I have to be able to see, smell, and feel what’s going on. 

I said that’s dangerous—bad things can happen. The enemy would very much like to capture me. But I’ve got to tell you [inaudible], so you know what that means.

And I said I love each and every one of you. I don’t want any one of you to get hurt. So, you know how I think about this, and I offer you the opportunity—any of you the opportunity—to say that you’re not comfortable, and you don’t want to go. And trust me: if you say that, I will never think twice about it. So I’m going to leave. You talk to the chief of staff, and whoever’s left, that’s who we’re going with.

I came back several hours later. Every one of those soldiers was there.

And every one of them traveled all the way from the line of departure to Baghdad. Men and women.

And I’ve got to tell you, I have never been so inspired, so encouraged by the professionalism that I saw in that team. But especially in the women. It was a thing… it was remarkable.


That turned out OK—so fortunately, the lesson learned was not to follow a crazy general on the battlefield.


And again, those women were remarkable. I knew a lot about our great women. I admire them even more from that operation. For 22 days of fighting, we hung together.

So you’ve heard some great stories today. They’re all true stories. And everybody is inspired by those stories.

So I want to challenge everyone to not just leave here inspired by the stories that we’ve heard but to write new chapters in this great American story. To create more opportunities for women at every level in our military. To mentor those who are starting out on their journeys. And to break down stubborn barriers for women who wear the cloth of our nation. And to strengthen our common resolve to move toward even greater security and true equality.

And by the way, don’t ask me about what I believe. Look at my staff. Look at the senior commanders and combatant commanders for our military today. And you’ll know what I believe.


In just a few moments, Seaman Allyson Smith from our Coast Guard will ring the bell that’s here in front of us.  

Back in 1944, it was the bell of a ship named for the original Coast Guard Women Reserve, better known as the SPARs. And ever since, the sound of this bell has honored women service members who have come before.

Today, may it ring in another 25 years of remembrance and reflection here at this special memorial.

May it ring out to deepen our drive to serve.

May the inspiring stories that are told here resound across our country.

And may the bravery of all who have served in uniform forever echo in the heart of a grateful nation.

Thank you very much.