Tapping Keys to History
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 21, 1997;
For years, Karen M. Chambliss, a retired Army sergeant, has been searching for the woman who was her platoon sergeant more than three decades ago at Fort McClellan, Ala. She finally found her yesterday -- just by pushing a few buttons.
"Oh, that's her!" Chambliss, 55, cried out as her platoon sergeant's military history flashed before her on a computer screen.
"My God!" said Chambliss, who now lives in Petaluma, Calif. "She's in San Francisco!"
As the new Women in Military Service for America Memorial opened to the public yesterday at Arlington National Cemetery, the memorial's computerized registry of U.S. servicewomen quickly became an intensely emotional draw. Even before the doors opened at 8 a.m., people were eagerly lining up to get their hands on one of 12 computer keyboards in the windowless room in the exhibit hall that holds the registry.
The hope is that the registry will one day contain the names, military history and photographs of many of the 1.8 million women who have served their country dating to the American Revolution.
As of yesterday, about 150,000 names had been entered in the computer registry, with about 480,000 names to be entered in the coming weeks, said Karen Smith, manager of the registry. So far, only 2,000 photographs have been scanned in, she said.
Because military records are confidential, officials are requiring that the names be submitted either by the veterans themselves or their sponsors, who typically are family members. Names have been arriving in the mail every day.
Although some visitors were disappointed when they couldn't find the name of the person they were looking for, most said they understood the monumental task of assembling the first-ever complete military history of women.
With tears running down their faces, many veterans were clearly savoring the moment.
"The dedication was absolutely AWESOME!" Cheryl Fletcher, a disabled Army veteran from Bradenton, Fla., wrote from her wheelchair in one of many memory books that will be kept in the memorial's archives. "I have planned for years that this day would come and could not pass up the opportunity to be with my fellow comrades."
Visitors descended on the memorial's gift store, nearly cleaning out the shelves of duffle bags, mugs and Christmas ornaments by midday. Sybil Roos, 73, who served in the Navy's hospital corps, was buying as many souvenirs as she could hold, including three teddy bears with T-shirts saying, "My Mother Wore Combat Boots. And I'm Proud."
The sun, sorely missed during the dedication ceremony, made a dazzling appearance yesterday, reflecting the words of veterans etched on glass panels in the memorial's ceiling onto the marble walls below.
"I'm glad you stayed long enough to know that the sun does shine in Washington," retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Wilma L. Vaught told one veteran in the sun-splashed exhibit hall.
Even in a conservative navy blue suit, the general was instantly recognizable. Veterans were drawn to her, many thanking her for what they described as the most memorable weekend of their lives. She obliged every request for a photograph, often embracing those who were overcome with emotion.
"Don't you ever sleep?" a veteran asked.
"No, there's work to be done," the general said.
Vaught was the driving force behind the $21.5 million memorial project, which includes a 196-seat theater, 14 exhibit coves and a Hall of Honor. About a decade ago, while checking out potential sites, she spotted the largely ignored ceremonial entrance to the cemetery and wondered if it could be transformed into the only major memorial honoring U.S. military women.
"I was going to come if I had to crawl," Rachel K. Crystal, 81, told the general from her wheelchair.
A retired Navy Wave, Crystal used to pack parachutes, until she became pregnant with the first of her five children and was forced to leave the service. When she signed up in 1942, it took her 26 minutes to pack a parachute, she said. But she is proud of the fact that she improved her time to six minutes a parachute -- and never made a mistake.
With help from her eldest child, Crystal, who lives in Clovis, N.M., stepped out of her wheelchair to peer at her name on the registry. There, on the computer screen, were the words she had written.
"My years in the WAVES were very happy," she wrote. "I was doing my job to the best of my ability."
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company