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Battling to Find Women War Veterans : Memorials: They’ve served since the days of the Revolutionary War. And Wilma Vaught has made it her mission to ensure they aren’t forgotten.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Brig. Gen. Wilma Vaught wants YOU!

At least she does if you are a woman veteran. For the past seven years, Vaught, a retired Air Force brigadier general, has been combing the country for names of women who have served or are serving in the military. There have been an estimated 1.8 million since the Revolutionary War and most of their records have disappeared.

Vaught, 65, a Vietnam veteran, is trying to put them back into history and it’s proving to be a lot harder than she had expected.

“But we are making progress,” she said in an interview last week. She had just made her trademark speech to a cheering audience in the Sheraton Universal Grand Ballroom for an unusual women-only Veterans Day event. The sellout crowd of more than 700 ranged from retired World War II WAVES to active-duty technical sergeants from Travis Air Force Base.

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Vaught had given them a vigorous pep talk, sketching a history from the Civil War (when women disguised themselves as men) through Operation Desert Storm (the first real test of women integrated into combat). She described how women had served without rank, without retirement plans, with few benefits, and with limits on where and how and in what numbers they could serve.

“Whenever the country has a crisis, it has turned to women,” she said. “We owe all of you a debt of gratitude.” And she updated them on the project that has been her single focus almost since her retirement from active duty in 1985. As president of the Women in Military Service for America Memorial Foundation, she is spearheading a campaign to build the first major national memorial honoring women who have defended their country.

“We are not in the history books,” she said. To correct that, “This memorial will be more than granite or marble.”

Ground was broken in June for the $25-million memorial, which will sit at the gateway to Arlington National Cemetery. A reflecting pool will be encircled with glass tablets inscribed with quotations by and about women who have served in the military. Inside the gateway, an education center will feature exhibits of women’s military service. The heart of the memorial will be a computerized database, offering the name, photograph and personal recollection of every servicewoman who is registered.

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It is this feature--telling the story--that sets the memorial apart from the traditional military monument, said Vaught, who has noted that every public park in America seems to have a bronze general on a horse somewhere on the premises.

“Now you will be a permanent part of history,” she told her audience. “Your name will come up on the screen and everyone will see it. Your grandchildren and their grandchildren can come to the memorial and enter your name, and they will know what you did.”

As a speaker, Vaught combines a trim, military bearing with an informal style and so much empathy for her audience that she is swamped afterward with women who want to share their stories, get her autograph and take her picture.

“I’ll tell you,” she said, “it’s a wonderful thing to be involved in a project that is bringing such a sense of value and pride to women who didn’t have it before. So many people don’t understand the role of women in the military, including the women who served. . . . We are finding women veterans who are now senior citizens and hadn’t realized there are benefits they were entitled to.”

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Vaught has broken a few barriers herself. Raised on a Midwestern farm, where women had lots of responsibility, she wanted to “manage and supervise” after receiving a bachelor’s degree from the University of Illinois and a master’s in business administration from the University of Alabama.

But it was the 1950s and women mainly worked as nurses, secretaries or teachers. So she joined the Air Force as a second lieutenant.

“I loved it,” she said. “I was responsible for things. I was put in charge of a data automation area and also made squad commander over 200 women.”

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During her career she served on Air Force bases throughout the world and became the only woman promoted to brigadier general in the comptroller career field and received dozens of commendations, including the Bronze Star.

When she retired in 1985, she planned to “go out and make a million dollars for myself, just to prove I could succeed in the business world.”

She had settled in the Washington, D.C., area and was asked to serve on the board of directors for the memorial project, which had just been authorized by Congress.

“I missed a meeting in March when they elected officers and that’s how I got to be president.”

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At the time Vaught thought the project wouldn’t be too difficult. Estimating that there were about 1.5 million women veterans still living, she figured all she had to do was get a million to register at $25 apiece and the job was done.

That proved to be unrealistic on two counts.

First, she couldn’t even find the women veterans, especially the largest group, the 400,000 who served in World War II. They married and changed their names, many are living on limited incomes and don’t even take newspapers, many don’t even think of themselves as veterans.

“This is tough, getting the word out to them,” Vaught said. She and her staff have sent out press releases and newsletters, promoted a toll-free number and set up a worldwide base of 1,400 veteran volunteers. So far, 125,000 have enrolled and about 1,500 a month are coming in. Vaught wants to find them all and thinks she’ll get close.

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The second hurdle, she said, has been fund-raising.

“I have been described as stubborn quite frequently. You don’t achieve in life unless you are willing to persevere. But I was naive about raising money,” she said. “We’re competing with so many good causes--children’s issues, education, abused women.”

But the time was right, she said. “If we don’t capture this history now, it is lost forever.”

Their major corporate gifts have been $1 million from AT&T; and $300,000 from General Motors. In addition, the U.S. government gave $9.5 million, and the governments of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia each donated $850,000 in honor of the women who served in Operation Desert Storm. The fund has received $500,000 from the General Federated Women’s Clubs.

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The rest has come from veteran organizations and other service organizations and individuals.

“At this point we need $6 million to open debt-free,” Vaught said.

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The June 22 groundbreaking, with its record 6,000 women veterans and their families, was “awesome,” she said.

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“I have attended more veterans functions than I care to remember, but this was an emotional thing.”

And even though the President and the First Lady led the roster of top-brass dignitaries who spoke and turned a shovelful of groundbreaking sod, it was the women veterans themselves, representing a different kind of groundbreaking, who dramatized the purpose of the memorial.

Vaught recited the lineup with pride: “We had six women speak, starting with a World War I veteran who is 94 and served before she even had the right to vote, then World War II, then the first general, then the first black general, then an enlisted woman serving today, then the highest-ranking active duty officer today, the first major general in the Marine Corps.”

She is confident of meeting the October, 1997, opening date. Her commitment is total: She has given up all other activities except for teaching a Sunday school class in an Arlington Methodist Retirement Home.

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“If you’re going to take up something like this, you must remain focused,” she said. And the feedback makes it worthwhile. She mentions a 95-year-old woman, a veteran of WWI, who came into the memorial office to be sure they were authentic.

“She said ‘I’m so glad, because now I know we won’t be forgotten,’ ” Vaught recalled. “She had carried her ID tag for 76 years.”

* For information on the memorial project or to register a servicewoman, call (800) 222-2294.


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