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A Snappy Salute to a General

By Roxanne Roberts
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 17, 1997; Page D01

Oh, there were a few men in uniform. But, for once, the women outranked them all.

Last night was reserved for military women -- more than 4,000 of them -- at a formal dinner at the D.C. Armory. The gala kicked off the four-day opening celebration of the Women in Military Service for America Memorial, which will be dedicated tomorrow.

Most of all, the evening was a tribute to Brig. Gen. Wilma L. Vaught, one of the most decorated women in the U.S. military and the driving force behind the memorial project.

"Margaret Thatcher once observed: "If you want anything said, ask a man. If you want anything done, ask a woman,' " Tipper Gore told the audience. "There is one woman like no other who stands behind this tremendous, tremendous achievement . . . Brigadier General Wilma Vaught."

On hand to honor her were members from each of the services, as well as a few civilian dignitaries, including Gore; Gen. Joseph Ralston, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Air Force Secretary Sheila Widnall; Gen. Dennis Reimer, Army chief of staff; and performers Loretta "Hot Lips" Swit, Connie Stevens, Kathy Mattea and Phil Driscoll.

"They all know me because I keep sending them letters asking for money," Vaught teased before the dinner. But feelings for the dedicated 67-year-old Air Force general run so deep that she received a standing ovation by simply walking onstage. "Please sit down or we'll be here all night," she scolded her fellow veterans.

The Armory was filled with women: There were a few young women in uniform, but most of the tables were filled with those veterans -- gray heads held high -- who served in World War II and Korea and are being recognized for the first time.

"I feel very passionate about these women -- particularly the ones who were in World War II," Vaught said. "It was such a wonderful feeling to be walking through them. They are so excited."

Vaught herself was calm but busy attending to last-minute details, which is how she likes it. She once said, "What I wanted to be when I grew up was -- in charge."

The Illinois native is a Vietnam veteran with a chestful of awards and decorations and the first and only woman promoted to brigadier general in the comptroller field. Since her retirement in 1985, she has devoted her efforts to servicewomen, especially fighting for military benefits for women who served during war but were not officially considered war veterans.

The women's memorial foundation was established in 1987 to design and develop the $21 million memorial at the foot of Arlington National Cemetery honoring the 2 million women who have served in the U.S. armed forces since the Revolutionary War. This weekend, 30,000 women and their families are expected in Washington to attend the dedication ceremonies. (For full coverage, see tomorrow's Washington Post.)

Vaught has been the heart and soul of the project from the beginning. She missed the first board meeting, so the members elected her president. The memorial foundation's first office was in her bedroom and eventually took over her house. Her combination of charm and arm-twisting resulted in the project taking only 10 years to complete.

And it was also Vaught who collected stories for the memorial, from the civilian women who followed the soldiers of the American Revolution to the veterans of Desert Shield and Desert Storm. Last night's tribute to her was such a hot ticket that huge lines formed. In her greeting to the audience, Vaught apologized, after a fashion.

"If you had to stand in line -- well, isn't that the way it all started in the military service?" she said with a laugh.

Most of the talking, however, was left to her admiring fans. Superlatives flowed -- not unusual in Washington -- but this time they were undoubtedly justified. "She has great energy, great determination and great perseverance," Gen. Ralston said. "Which is what it takes to make something like this happen."

Gore said Vaught numbers among her friends the million-plus living female veterans and active-duty servicewomen who will be remembered through her efforts and the families of more than half a million female veterans who did not live to see this day. She is also an inspiration to current and future generations of young women to serve alongside men in uniform.

There was, of course, another standing ovation. And through it all, Vaught kept her calm smile. "I don't get excited," she said. "I get satisfaction."

But it was clear this was one happy general. At ease, soldiers.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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