Remarks by Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III at the 25th Anniversary Service Women’s Memorial Ceremony (as prepared)
Well, hello. It’s great to be with you all.
Phyllis, thank you for that warm introduction. And I want to congratulate you and your team for making today such a special occasion.
And I’m grateful to the amazing women in the military who shared their stories with all of us today. You are a hard act to follow.
And I would also like to thank my colleague and good friend, Secretary Denis McDonough, for his moving words. Denis and I work together to fulfill our nation’s sacred promise to always care for our service members, their families and our veterans.
We are honored to have so many veterans with us today, including Lt. Cecile Cover, who entered service nearly 80 years ago during World War II.
Lieutenant Cover, thank you for your service and for paving the way for future generations of women in uniform. Let’s give him a round of applause.
You know, this site used to be a retaining wall that was in dire need of repair.
But for the past two and a half decades, it’s been the centerpiece of visitors as they step into Arlington’s hallowed grounds. It has helped reinforce the progress made by women in our armed forces. And it is a proud tribute to the bravery, strength and sacrifice of every woman who has served our country.
I would therefore like to thank the person who made this memorial a reality: Brigadier General Wilma Vaught. In the Air Force, she was the first woman to hold almost every job she had.
And after retiring, General Vaught agreed to join the board of a new foundation that would honor women in the military. And the way General Vaught tells it, she missed a meeting… and found out that she had in fact been elected president.
It was through her sheer determination that we were granted this magnificent memorial, the first of its kind to honor all American women who served. And that’s why it’s sometimes affectionately called “the house that Wilma built.” So let’s applaud General Vaught.
And I’m glad we have ROTC cadets from General Vaught’s alma mater at the University of Illinois who are here today carrying on his legacy.
Now, in the 25 years since the dedication of this memorial, there have been many more “firsts” for women in the US military.
In 2005 Sergeant Leigh Ann Hester became the first woman to be awarded the Silver Star for gallantry in combat.
In 2008, Army General Ann Dunwoody made history by becoming the first woman to achieve the rank of four-star general. And we’ve since had the first four-star women in the Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard as well.
In just a few short years, we have gone from lifting the last restrictions on women serving in combat to being the first woman to lead a platoon of the elite 75th Ranger Regiment into combat.
We have now had three women to lead combatant commands, including General Jackie Van Ovost, who currently heads TRANSCOM, and General Laura Richardson, who commands SOUTHCOM.
And last week, Colonel Nicole Mann became the first female Marine to lead a NASA spaceflight.
Women have also broken down barriers in civil service.
Today, the Secretary for the Armed Forces, Christine Wormuth, is the first woman in this position.
And my right-hand man, Dr. Kathleen Hicks, is the first woman confirmed by the Senate to serve as Under Secretary of Defense.
The ranks, titles and appointments of these exceptional patriots do not just add to the “firsts” of history. They are the best leaders for so many of our most vital jobs.
It’s quite simple: our military needs the best fighters in all areas, from the seas to cyberspace. We need the best credible combat force and the best leaders ready to win across the full spectrum of conflict.
If we were to limit these jobs to men only – who, by the way, make up less than half
of the American population – we wouldn’t always get the best. And that’s just math.
So to ensure that the United States continues to have the best fighting force in the world, we must tap into the power of all of our people.
Now, a lot has changed for women in the US military over the past few decades. But even with the progress we have made, there is still much to do.
Getting rid of exclusions for women’s service was only a minimum. We still have a lot of work to do to eliminate prejudice in our ranks and to eradicate sexual harassment and sexual assault in the United States military.
It is not enough that women are allowed to serve. We need an army where all of our troops can reach their full potential and defend our country with everything they have. An army where raising your family and serving your country are compatible, for both men and women in uniform. And an army where everyone can bring the full range of their talents, creativity and strength to the mission of defending this exceptional nation.
This is how we will build on the legacy of more than three million women who, since the earliest days of our nation’s founding, have stepped up to serve. This is how we will be smarter, more innovative and more effective than any potential adversary. This is how we will continue to stand ready to defend the nation.
You know, one of the greatest gifts of this memorial is how it gives voice to the stories of these women.
Women like the then Chief Yeoman, Loretta Perfectus Walsh. In 1917, she was the first woman to officially enlist in any branch of our military.
Now she needed to make some changes to the men’s uniform, but she paved the way. And that trail still points the way forward, as we saw two years ago when JoAnne Bass became the first woman to serve as Air Force Chief Master Sergeant. She is now the highest ranking female enlisted in any military service.
And this memorial also honors women like Colonel Mary Hallaren, who served in World War II. You know, she was barely five feet tall. So, to pass the height requirement during enlistment, she stood on her tiptoes. The recruiter even asked him what the army could do with someone so small. She replied,
“You don’t need to be six feet tall to have a working brain.”
And this memorial honors women like Lt. Col. Charity Adams. During World War II, she commanded the Six Triple Eight Central Postal Directory Battalion. It was the first and only African-American female unit to deploy overseas during World War II.
Colonel Adams later said she hadn’t thought of going down in history.
She just knew that, given the opportunity and the training, she could do the job as well as anyone else.
And we honor women like Lt. Jonita Bonham, who served in Korea. She was an Air Force nurse working on a C-54 that had been converted into a flying emergency room.
One day the C-54 crashed into the sea. And Lieutenant Bonham was trapped in the submerged plane. But she made her way to the surface and swam through the choppy waters
hold on to the rope of a lifeboat. Although she was seriously injured, she guided 17 other survivors to the raft.
A year after the accident, when asked how she survived that day, she simply replied that
it hadn’t occurred to her to die – so she didn’t.
You know, I graduated from West Point in 1975 and spent over four decades in the military. Over the years I have had the privilege of serving with more and more women at all levels. And there is no doubt that our armed forces have gotten better and better, with even greater emphasis on standards and excellence.
Because patriotism has no gender.
Nor does courage.
Men and women hear the same call to serve our great country.
And American women have always, always responded.
So I want to challenge everyone to not just leave here inspired by the stories we’ve heard, but to write new chapters in this great American story. Create more opportunities for women at all levels of our military. Accompany those who are starting their journey. To break down stubborn barriers for the women who wear the fabric of our nation. And to strengthen our common will to move towards even greater security and true equality.
In a few moments Coast Guard Seaman Allyson Smith will ring the bell in front of me.
In 1944, it was the bell of a ship named after the original Coast Guard Women’s Reserve, better known as SPAR. And ever since, the sound of that bell has honored the servicewomen who have gone before us.
Today may it ring in another 25 years of remembrance and reflection here at this special memorial.
May it ring to deepen our desire to serve.
May the inspiring stories told here resonate throughout our country.
And may the bravery of all who served in uniform resonate forever in the heart of a grateful country.