Brig. Gen. Wilma Vaught likes to tell the story of Deborah Samson, a young woman who masqueraded as a man to fight in the Revolutionary War. She was wounded three times before her sex was discovered.
"Her story says a lot about the medicine of those days and about the history of women in military service," says Vaught, once the senior ranking woman in the military.
Four years ago, several Vietnam veterans decided to form a nonprofit organization to educate the public about the role of women in Vietnam and to honor the women with a statue. The Vietnam Women's Memorial Project asked Minnesota sculptor Rodger M. Brodin to design a statue of a female veteran.
Project supporters want Brodin's sculpture of a woman in fatigues, helmet clasped in her hands, to be erected near the wall and statue of three infantrymen, which make up the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Constitution Gardens. The proposal was approved by Interior Secretary Donald Hodel, but last fall the Commission of Fine Arts -- which oversees placement of national monuments -- voted 4-1 to reject the women's memorial.
Commission chairman J. Carter Brown said the wall itself is a testament to women veterans and includes the names of the eight women killed in Vietnam.
Several congressmen introduced measures this session supporting the statue. A hearing is scheduled tomorrow at 2 p.m. before the Public Lands, National Parks & Forests subcommittee chaired by Sen. Dale Bumpers (D-Ark.)
Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.), sponsor of one of the measures, called the proposed statue "a fitting and appropriate addition" to the wall. His bill (S.1896) would not bypass the Commission on Fine Arts, but seeks to overcome the commission's objections by placing the weight of Congress behind the proposal.
"Television coverage of Vietnam didn't show women. It showed men fighting and dying," says Donna-Marie Boulay, a founding member of the Vietnam Women's Memorial Project. "There is a general understanding that we were terribly invisible. People who visit the wall see only the statue of men."
Vaught, also a Vietnam veteran, points out that there are no national memorials recognizing the roles women have played in any war. She is working with the Women in Military Service for America Foundation to raise funds for a memorial to honor and tell the history of all women in the military. As envisioned by Vaught, the memorial would be a living history project featuring an auditorium and exhibits.
This memorial is separate from the Vietnam Women's Memorial Project and was authorized by Congress two years ago. The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Mary Rose Oakar (D-Ohio), gives supporters until November 1991, to put something in place. Vaught says the foundation is preparing to launch its fund-raising campaign this spring.
"Almost 1 1/2 million women are veterans today," says Vaught, 57, of Falls Church. "From my point of view, I see us honoring all the women who have served in the military going back to the Revolutionary War, those serving today, and those who will serve through all our tomorrows."