ARLINGTON, Va. --
More than 500 service members and supporters gathered at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington for a mile-long candlelight march to the Women In Military Service For America Memorial in Arlington National Cemetery Oct. 20.
This marked the memorial’s 15-year commemoration. The Women in Military Service Foundation dedicated the memorial in October 1997. Today, it is the only national memorial honoring America’s military women, ensuring their patriotism and bravery are recognized as part of the nation's heritage.
“We gather to honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice for freedom while wearing the cloth of this nation,” said Marine Maj. Gen. Angela Salinas, director of Manpower Management Division, Manpower and Reserve Affairs. “There is no more appropriate venue then to pay tribute to the living memorial honoring all military women – past,present and future.”
Following the march, the foundation held a Service of Remembrance to highlight women’s military service and to recognize the 152 women who have died in support of the Global War on Terrorism. The service included a prayer, poetry readings and remarks from veterans, family members and supporters.
“This memorial belongs to all of us – Army, Marines, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard and women veterans,” said retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Wilma L. Vaught, foundation president.“[We have finally received] the recognition we so justly deserve. What we did will now be forever preserved here. We didn’t take the place of a man, we made[our own] place in history.”
Salinas, a keynotespeaker at the event, talked about those service women who made the ultimate sacrifice for their nation.
“We are reminded that they were ordinary women who chose to serve their country as had generations of women before them,” she said. “It’s incumbent on each of us to pass on to future generations that those proud, patriotic, American women served their nation long before their nation gave them the right to vote.”
Among those women was Army Cpl. Jessica A. Ellis, a medic who died on Mother’s Day in 2008, when her vehicle hit an improvised explosive device in Baghdad. Her father, Stephen Ellis, recalled her childhood and the selfless spirit that guided her.
“When she was growing up she was a very caring child,” he said. “She always considered others above herself and these traits carried forward. Her buddies in the 101stAirborne told us of her courage, spirit and devotion to her fellow soldiers.They told us she survived a blast a month before she died and how she went right back out on that hazardous road clearance duty.”
The service mourned the loss of such selfless women and celebrated their lives and how they chose to serve something greater than themselves.
“When a young man or woman raises their hand and says ‘I do solemnly swear to support and defend the constitution,’ they go home and look at their moms and dads and say ‘I chose to do this,’” said Salinas. ”[That] family becomes part of the defense of this nation, and when the ultimate sacrifice is made, it is the family that also makes the sacrifice.”
Closing the ceremony, Salinas lead a somber rose petal ceremony dropping the first rose petals into the reflection pool in remembrance of the 53 women killed in support of Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom since the memorial’s 10th anniversary celebration five years ago.
Following theceremony, attendees had the opportunity to tour the memorial.
“This memorial represents and records the faces and the stories of anyone who has ever worn the cloth of this nation,” said Salinas. “That is what this is all about. For generations to come, visitors can (visit the memorial), click your name, and they’ll know what you did.”
“Growing up, they didn’t realize what I did. This is what this memorial means to me; my children learned about their mother in another way. That old lady that burns the chicken did so much.”
Retired U.S. Army Staff Sgt.Venus Val-Hammack, who also attended the dedication of the memorial 15 years ago, served from 1973-1999. Her story is among the 260,000 documented at the memorial.
“I visited with my daughters when they were 27 and 30-years-old,” she said. “They went to the kiosk and searched my name. At first, they said, ‘Look she has a similar name as yours -she was in the signal corps, the medical corps and the JAG corps.’ Then it slowly hit them – I did all this.