Brigadier General Wilma Vaught: Pioneer Air Force Officer

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This interview was originally published in Recon Magazine in 2005.

As president of the Women’s Memorial Foundation board of directors, retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Wilma Vaught led the campaign that raised $22 million for the Woman’s Memorial, the nation’s first major tribute to women veterans.  The memorial, located at the gates of Arlington National Cemetery, also holds the Faces of the Fallen exhibit that includes paintings of service men and women who died in Afghanistan and Iraq.

A native of Illinois, General Vaught earned a bachelor of science from the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana; a master of business administration from the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa; and an honorary doctorate from Columbia College, S.C.

Her military career spaned more than 28 years, with a variety of assignments in the United States and overseas, including Vietnam and Spain.  In 1980, her father pinned a star on her shoulder when she became the first woman in the comptroller career field to be promoted to brigadier general.

Her last military assignment was as commander of the U.S. Military Entrance Processing Command, North Chicago, Ill., the largest command, geographically, in the U.S. military.  She served there from June 1982 until her retirement in August 1985.

When she retired, she was one of only three female generals in the Air Force and one of seven female generals in the U.S. armed forces.  Her military decorations include 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 and many others.  She is the first woman to command a unit receiving the Joint Meritorious Unit Award.

Following her military retirement, she worked as a consultant with the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization and other entities.  She is a member of the board of the Dr. Robert Teller Foundation.  She speaks around the nation about leadership and management and is a frequent guest on radio and television programs.

According to Wikipedia:

Vaught received the Veterans of Foreign Wars‘ James E. Van Zandt Citizenship Award.

In 2000, Vaught was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.

In 2010, Vaught was inducted into the U.S. Army Women’s Foundation Hall of Fame.

On July 7, 2022, Vaught received the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Joe Biden.

Interviewer:  In one of your biographies, it mentions that you joined the corporate world after college.  What made you want to join the military?

Vaught:  “I wanted to get into management–for a woman, that was virtually impossible.  One day, I received a letter from a U.S. Army recruiter.  It said I could earn a commission as second lieutenant, based on my education and experience.  In the mid-1950s, I began thinking I needed to do something different.  In 1956, I made the decision to enter the military.  By 1957, I was commissioned.”

Interviewer:  Why did you choose the U.S. Air Force?

Vaught:  “I lived halfway between two large military installations.  One was Fort Benjamin Harrison.  The other was Chanute Air Force Base.  I talked to a few neighbors who were career military men.  They felt a woman would fare better in the Air Force because of the nature of the missions and opportunities.”

Interviewer:  You served for many years in the U.S. Air Force, what are some of your best memories?

Vaught:  “Spending four years in Spain was a great memory.  Having the opportunity to tour the country was excellent.  Also, I learned to speak the language.  A second great memory is that I was the first woman to deploy with a bomber squadron attached to the Strategic Air Command for service in Guam, where they conducted bombing of Vietnam.  A third memory is serving in Vietnam in Military Assistance Command-Vietnam headquarters in downtown Saigon.  The last great memory is serving as commander of a joint Military Entrance Processing Command.”

Interviewer:  You have achieved many firsts as a woman.  What was your proudest accomplishment in the military?

Vaught:  “My greatest achievement was the positive influence I had on the careers of hundreds of people in the military.  I tried to encourage them to continue their education and to see the opportunities of a military career.  I am also proud of the Military Entrance Processing Command’s dramatic steps forward to improve MEP stations throughout the country.  They became a good environment to efficiently process people entering the armed forces.”

Interviewer:  What advice would you give to a young woman thinking of joining the military today?

Vaught:  “I would encourage any young woman or man to go into the military.  It is important for the young person who hasn’t figured out what they want to do when they grow up.  Some people in their 60s and 70s haven’t figured that out yet.  The military gives you an experience that stays with you the rest of your life.  You can achieve things you never thought you could.  There are opportunities for leadership, to meet people from all over the world, and to have challenging work.”

Interviewer:  How has the military changed since your time as an officer?

Vaught:  “The services have come a long way to making it a better place for men and women.  Not to mention families.  There are challenging issues from the war in Afghanistan and Iraq where military men and women can’t take their families.  I read where the divorce rate among enlisted personnel returning from Iraq is 28 percent.  For officers, it is 70 percent.  A deployment is part of military life when you take the oath of enlistment or earn a commission, but it is causing a strain on families.

“A way of solving the problem is to increase number of personnel in the armed forces to decrease the reliance on the reserve and National Guard.  That would be expensive.  Those service members with children are having it tough, particularly single parents.  We can’t tell our service members that ‘you are single, so you have to go’ instead of a married person with children or a single parent.  You can make arrangements for child care, but for a year or 18 months, that can be challenging.  There are no easy solutions to these types of problems.”

Interviewer:  You spearheaded a 12-year effort to establish the Women’s Memorial.  What were some of the biggest challenges you faced?

Vaught:  “The biggest challenge was raising the money to take on a multimillion-dollar project.  The type of memorial we wanted to organize was very difficult, but we were very successful raising the money.  The second major challenge—and it continues to be a challenge—is a computer registration service for women veterans [located at the Women’s Memorial].

“Woman have severed in every war—dating back to the American Revolution. All women veterans are eligible to be registered.  We estimate there have been 2.5 million women who have served.  Of that 2.5 million, 230,000, or less than 10 percent, have registered.  We could probably get another 100,000 registrants based on copies of military orders or lists, but that would still be a small percentage.”

Interviewer:  Why aren’t more women veterans registered?

Vaught:  “It is troubling to me that a number of women veterans probably never heard of the memorial.  In fact, a number of women veterans from World War II never considered themselves vets.  There are not signed up with the VA, not getting medical care and other benefits.  It was not stressed to them that they were vets when they got out of the military.  Some Woman’s Army Corps veterans were specifically told they were not vets.  By the time that statement had been corrected, many were out of the service.

“Another issue is that men tended to join veteran’s groups such as the VFW.  However, women were not really welcome in these organizations.  In fact, it was the 1970s before the VFW let women veterans in.  Until 1982, the VA didn’t really reach out to women veterans.  They would say that they were not equipped to take care of women—that their facilities were open bays.  Things have changed, but there still are not a lot of women in veteran’s service organizations.”

Interviewer:  What are a few reasons to visit the Women’s Memorial?

Vaught:  “One of the most pleasing aspects about the memorial is when women veterans come to visit.  They see where they have been in history.  Women vets receive a sense of pride they had before they came in.  It’s incredible when it happens.  The husband of an U.S. Army enlisted woman recently called to tell me she had died in Iraq.  When I went to her funeral, he told me it had meant so much to him to go to the Woman’s Memorial.  He had seen her portrait in the Faces of the Fallen exhibit and was proud that she had been remembered.

“Literally thousands of people are coming to the exhibit.  One couple from Florida was celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary in Washington.  They stopped by the exhibit on Flag Day in June to see the portrait of their son, an army lieutenant colonel, who was killed in Iraq.  It was a special moment for them—that the nation was paying tribute to him.  It tells such an incredible story.  When I look at some of the portraits, I see people I don’t think are old enough for military service, people with gray hair who are seasoned soldiers, all ranks, all ethnic groups.  It’s an incredible exhibit.”

Interviewer:  What are your favorite history sites?

Vaught:   “I like to visit Gettysburg; the memorial sites here in Washington, D.C.; the Gen. MacArthur Memorial in Norfolk; and the U.S.S. Intrepid in New York harbor.  In Virginia, I go to the battlefield and historic sites around Fredericksburg, Va.  I also like the Navy Museum in Washington, the Army Museum at Fort Lee.  I hope to see the new Marine Museum at Quantico, Va., when it is completed.

“Other sites I love are Yellowstone National Park, Yosemite, the Rocky Mountains, Ellis Island, White Sands, the Gulf Coast, the Statue of Liberty, Niagara Falls, Chicago and New Orleans.  Everyone should see the Grand Canyon.”

Contact:  Woman’s Memorial, (800) 222-2294, www.womensmemorial.org

 

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