First female brig. gen. shares path for rights

DUNCANSVILLE – American women have been trying to – and succeeding in – serving in the armed forces since the Revolutionary War; and the path to military service has been rife with obstacles and barriers.

That was the message delivered by Brig. Gen. Wilma Vaught, the first woman to obtain that rank, Friday at the Women Veterans Retreat attended by at least 30 local female veterans at the Comfort Inn.

Vaught shared 250 years of military history with the women, telling them how women had to wait centuries to be able to enlist, obtain rank and receive pensions. Many who joined when she did in the 1950s, Vaught said, could be discharged if they married or got pregnant.

And, she said, there was the longstanding belief that women could not be promoted to high rank, because menopause would prevent them from making rational decisions.

“Because men always make rational decisions,” she said, jokingly.

When she joined, she said, she didn’t get combat training or learn to fire a weapon; instead, she was enrolled in charm school, learning how to sit and cross her legs, how to gracefully exit a car and how to apply makeup.

Also in attendance on Friday at the Woman Veterans Retreat was Operation Desert Storm veteran and VFW State Commander Ruth Fairchild, the first woman to hold that position in Pennsylvania.

This weekend’s retreat was the product of a year’s worth of work, said Sandra Showalter, chairwoman of the state VFW Women Veterans Committee, commander of VFW District 22 and an Operation Desert Storm veteran.

When a woman returns from a tour overseas, many go back to being mothers, wives and daughters, and many Americans forget that these women also served their country, she said. That’s why she wanted to do something for them.

Friday night featured speakers who discussed topics including how to register and file claims with Veterans Affairs hospitals, how to report and receive treatment for sexual trauma and how to address the growing number of homeless veterans.

But Vaught was the highlight, a speaker Showalter said she never dreamed would be there.

Showalter said National Women’s Veterans Month was the perfect time for these veterans to experience a lot of firsts – not only meeting the first female brigadier general and the first female VFW state commander but, for perhaps the first time, pampering themselves.

“We have a whole weekend planned,” Showalter said, with the women being able to sign up to receive massages, manicures, pedicures and facials today.

The day will be about camaraderie and the bond among women veterans, Showalter said.

Vaught, who also is president of the Women in Military Service for America Memorial Foundation, which was built at the entrance to Arlington National Cemetery, said more than 252,000 women have registered to have their names and military records be part of the memorial.

But that’s fewer than 10 percent of all the women who have served.

Vaught told them she needs their help, and that they should sign up for their names to be added.

She said they should be proud of the way women’s rights have progressed in the military, and said “every one of you helped us get there.”

Mirror Staff Writer Kelly Cernetich is at 946-7520.