Brigadier General Wilma L. Vaught

Daughter. Sister. Friend. Brigadier General.

The Women’s Memorial at the gateway to Arlington National Cemetery is a magnificent structure that appears to be standing guard at the front gates of our nations cemetery. It rests gracefully overlooking thousands of tombstones, seemingly saluting all those who have dedicated their lives to service, and to all those who pass through the iron gates that lead to sacred ground.

The Women’s Memorial serves as a tribute to the women who serve in the United States Military— past, present and future. It offers a comprehensive glimpse at the many contributions made by women in the name of service and acts as a compass to where we are going as a nation.

During a recent visit to Arlington Cemetery, I made my way through the Women’s Memorial Education Center and stood in awe of the women who have been brave enough to choose a military career path. I wondered what the women who served in the American Revolution might think of the incredible building, not to mention the progress women have made in general. And then I wondered how this incredible memorial came to fruition. I decided to do a little research. Women have come a very long way, and thanks to the efforts of many, and one in particular, millions of people every year can learn about the milestones women have achieved throughout military history.

Allow me to introduce you to Brigadier General Wilma L. Vaught, a woman who has paved the way for thousands, while shining a spotlight on how we have made our way to this very moment in time. The oldest of two daughters, Wilma Vaught was raised in rural Scottland, Illinois. Growing up on the family farm gave her a strong foundation of commitment and hard work. From the time she was a young girl, she detested performing chores inside with her mother. She much preferred to work beside her father and quickly became accustomed to working with men. With the encouragement of her entire family, Wilma left farm life and went on to study at the University of Illinois. After graduating in 1952, she immediately accepted a position with the DuPont Company. The majority of her co-workers were men and she began to notice that there was little opportunity for career advancement. Knowing she had the desire to lead, she knew she had to make a critical decision. After receiving a recruiting letter from the military that said she could manage and supervise, she knew exactly which direction she would move towards. Wilma Vaught joined the United States Air Force. And the rest, as they say, is United States Military History. Literally.

At the time of her retirement, Brigadier General Wilma L. Vaught was one of America’s most decorated women military leaders. She has shattered glass ceilings and carved out a path for generations of women to come. General Vaught has received numerous military decorations and other honors, including the Defense and Air Force Distinguished Service Medals, the Air Force Legion of Merit, the Bronze Star, and the Vietnam Service Medal with four stars. General Vaught is also the first woman to command a unit receiving the Joint Meritorious Unit Award. However, her efforts to build the Women In Military Service For America Memorial and its 33,000 sq. ft. education center at the gates to Arlington Cemetery may be her greatest achievement and at the age of 85, she continues to include and lead us all.


You made the decision at an early age to seek out opportunities of growth and leadership. How did you know to do that?

When I graduated from college, I became very upset because many companies came to recruit their workforce at the University of Illinois, and I wanted to get into a training internship of some sort, but they would not even talk to me. They sent me to the end of the line to learn more about how to become a secretary. I didn’t want to be a secretary. It was a problem and I knew it.

   

Where did you get the confidence to follow your heart?

I don’t really know, I just knew. I grew up with the feeling that I wanted to be in charge— I wanted to lead. After working at the DuPont Company a few years, I knew staying in that environment would not help me achieve my goals of leadership. I was fortunate to have made the decision to move on. I received a letter from a woman Army recruiter that stated I could get a commission in the Army and I could manage and supervise. At that point, I knew the military was a viable option and a way to pursue my goals. As it turned out, in the end I didn’t join the Army but rather the United States Air Force.

   

Under your leadership, the Women In Military Service For America Memorial Foundation, Inc. built and now operates the $22.5 million Women’s Memorial located at the entrance of Arlington Cemetery. At what point in your military career did you notice that the role of women went unnoticed, and how did you get involved with this magnificent tribute to our women in the military?

Once I was in the military, I quickly noticed that the role of women went virtually unnoticed. After retirement, I was asked to be on the Women’s Memorial Foundation Board of directors from the beginning of the project. I did not intend to be in charge of it all, it just happened. I missed a meeting and was elected president. {Laughter.}

When I first came into the Air Force, I watched and learned from the women who were in World War II. There were many still serving and they taught me a great deal about the history of women in the military. So I felt a very strong desire to work on the Memorial for all women, especially for the women who served in World War II. Until the late eighties women did not even know their own history. And that bothered me. It is so important to know your history. How can you go forward if you don’t know where you have once been?

Admittedly, when I was first approached, I had a question in my mind if building a memorial was the right thing to do. We worked very hard to be integrated in the services, to compete with men, and not be shoved aside. We had been making considerable progress and I wondered if it would set us back if we built a memorial that is dedicated only to women. But I finally concluded that it is something we needed to do. We might never get another opportunity to get the support from Congress. So, here we are. It is important for children to know what women have achieved. They may not go into the military but at the very least they can see that women have broken barriers and there are countless opportunities that await them.

   

What challenges were you faced with when you first started to develop the massive project of creating a Women’s Memorial in America? Was their resistance? If so, how did you work through that resistance?

For the most part, everyone was ready for this project. We would get the occasional comments, ”Why are you building a women’s memorial? What about the men? You don’t see a memorial for men in DC?” I would just reply, “Well, then you have not looked very closely at the memorials or statues that currently exist. You don’t see any women on those do you?” Even now, you walk through any city around the world and most statues are of men.

   

You served in the United States Air Force from 1957 – 1985 and continue to lead today. What advice can you give to women who wish to take on leadership roles?

Believe in your mission. Believe in the purpose. Take care of your people and your people will take care of you. Also, it is very important to identify what your job is and do it while conveying optimism about your objective.

   

You broke numerous glass ceilings. You were the:

  • First Air Force Woman graduate of the Industrial College of the Armed Forces
  • First and, for some 22 years, the only woman promoted to brigadier general from the comptroller career field
  • First (and only) woman to head the Board of Directors of the Pentagon Federal Credit Union
  • First woman to command a unit receiving the Joint Meritorious Unit Award, the nation’s highest peacetime unit award, July 1985
  • First woman to deploy with a Strategic Air Command bombardment wing on an operational deployment, 1966-67

Truly remarkable! Because of women like you, millions of others can reach for the stars, with confidence. (Thank you very much!)

Did you know you were breaking ceilings at the time? And what challenges remain for women who serve in the United States Military?

Yes, I could feel it. I once saw a list that showed I was one of four non-nurse women colonels who were eligible to be promoted to brigadier general. I had achieved something very few women before me had done and I was aware of that. I was doing things other women had not yet had the opportunity to do and I am grateful I had that opportunity. While we have made great progress, we have a lot more to do. There are still many areas that women have not yet been able to tackle. For example, the military is currently examining career fields that have been previously closed to women. That will create new opportunities. I was thrilled for the women that had been accepted for Ranger training, the Army’s most physically and mentally demanding training. That is outstanding. Even if some of them don’t make it through the course, at least they have the opportunity to try, just like the men.

   

Is there such a thing as work – life balance for anyone?

I think it is important to note that there needs to be a balance between life and work. Admittedly, I am unbalanced. {Laughter.} My life is my work. I have not dedicated enough time with family and friends. I have failed to do things that I enjoy. That is a danger for all of us, both men and women. It can become a problem.

   

How important is mentorship? And what can women do to be more helpful to one another professionally?

Mentorship should always be encouraged. When I first got into the workforce, I don’t think I even heard of the word mentor. However, the military is highly aware of mentorship and as you gain rank you are encouraged to help others. I have always encouraged education. It is necessary to lay a strong educational foundation. Personally, I have always tried to lead by example and help others out where I can. When building the memorial and grounds, I paid close attention and ensured professional women were included in the process. I wanted to make sure there were senior women working on this important project. And I would take the contractors to task. I would ask the question, “how many women do you have in your organization and what do they do?” It is only fair.

   

At the time of your retirement, you were one of the most-decorated women in the United States of America. What do you attribute to your success?

I worked longer, harder, and tried to work smarter. It is important to understand the people you work with. It is critical to understand how to do the work and the end objective. If you have deficiencies, then work to get the information you need.

    

What has been your greatest life lesson learned?

I try to remain faithful to living my life as I should. I was once assigned to Wright Patterson in Dayton and I worked with a very severe alcoholic – it was hard to watch. He would come to work intoxicated on a regular basis. I would try very hard to get him help, unsuccessfully. I decided then I would not drink. I went to countless events that offered alcohol, but I decided that I didn’t need a glass of alcohol to get through the evening. I later learned that man accidentally set his house on fire and burned to death. You don’t ever forget that. And I feel I failed to help him. I believe that you have to live your life for something – don’t live your life for nothing. Think about the things you can do for the good of society or your family. Just do something and never give up.

   

What is your best advice on how to live a graceful life?

You need to define success for yourself. You should not let anyone else define it for you. We all give our life for something or nothing. And that is how people are going to judge you. Whether it be family or professionally, what do you give your life to?


 j. jane side note:

Admittedly, my first exposure to military life was from watching the 1970’s hit M*A*S*H. So I had to ask the general what she thought about the best-written show of all time. (My blog—my opinion.) While she did not spend her time watching much television, the general enjoyed the episodes she did see. When I asked her what she thought about Margaret Houlihan, she laughed and said, “As matter of fact, I know Loretta Swit very well.”

 Of course she does, she is Brigadier General Wilma Vaught. United States Air Force.

BGVViet

A very special thank you to Marilla J. Cushman, LTC, USA Ret. for making this possible. Your professionalism is unparalleled, and greatly appreciated.