WASHINGTON – Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates paid tribute to women who have answered America’s call to duty since the nation’s founding during the Women in Military Service for America Memorial’s 10th anniversary celebration Nov. 3.
Located at the entrance to Arlington National Cemetery, the memorial is the only major national monument dedicated to all women who have defended America from the Revolutionary War through current operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. The memorial was dedicated Oct. 18, 1997 and opened two days later.
Gates, who served as the celebration’s keynote speaker, said the role of women in the military has expanded since the memorial’s dedication.
“Consider that in 1997 when the memorial was new, few women staffed the crews of aircraft carriers. It is routine now,” he told several hundred audience members gathered near the memorial’s 30-foot high curved entrance.
“In 1997, women were new at training to be fighter pilots. Within weeks of Sept. 11, 2001, female pilots were in the skies above Afghanistan – a reality that must have been a grim and galling surprise for the Taliban, who would not let a woman drive, educate herself or even walk down a public street unescorted,” Gates said as the crowd cheered boisterously.
“In every war and in every generation, American women have served the cause of freedom, going all the way back to the Revolution,” Gates said of the roughly 2.5 million women who have served in the U.S. military. “A good deal has happened since the memorial went up … (but) 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.”
The secretary said women have “shared in the burdens and the tragedies of war,” noting nearly 100 women have been killed, and more than 550 wounded in Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Dawn Halfaker, a retired Army captain injured in Iraq, was one of seven female service members who addressed the audience during a portion of the ceremony called “Voices of the Women.” A rocket-propelled grenade severely wounded her in 2004 while she was deployed with the 3rd Infantry Division.
Speaking on behalf of female service members wounded in current U.S. operations, Halfaker told the hundreds of former female military members in the audience the women of her generation are inspired by their great example.
Gordon H. Mansfield, acting secretary of Veterans Affairs, said the Women’s Memorial reminds the country that equality in America was forged in large part by the courage and perseverance of military women.
“Every day, American service women are putting their lives on the battle line,” he said. “And because of that fact, there is no question they have earned and deserve our nation’s honor, respect and gratitude.”