Elvira Chiccarelli grew up during the Vietnam War and felt a call to serve her country. Her mother had been a cadet nurse in World War II, and in 1975 Chiccarelli, a dentist, joined the Air Force. But when she reported for duty, her commanding officer told her that he did not want women working there and assigned her to an auxiliary unit.

On Saturday, watching the celebration for the 20th anniversary of the Women in Military Service for America Memorial, the retired lieutenant colonel’s eyes got misty.

“We’ve touched every kind of service — medical, dental, computers, flying,” said Chiccarelli, 67, who had traveled from Panama City Beach, Fla., to attend with her daughter, who is in the Air Force and shares the same name. “Any place they needed people, women have stepped forward and demanded to give our talents to the country.”

Women have been enlisting in the U.S. armed forces since 1917, but it wasn’t until 1997 that a memorial was erected for them. The arched semicircle and reflecting pool at the top of the road that leads to Arlington National Cemetery is still the only major national memorial honoring the 3 million women who have served.

Army Staff Sgt. Cantress Noel-Mabery addresses the crowd at the memorial. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

The idea for the memorial, which originated with a group of World War II servicewomen in Toledo, wasn’t easy to implement, said retired Brig. Gen. Wilma Vaught, who was president of the Women’s Memorial Foundation when it was being planned and built.

“There are more than a few who did not think this was necessary, and some who didn’t think it was deserved,” she told several hundred attendees at the anniversary ceremony, many in uniform, who gathered in the fall sun.

In her own mind, there had been questions.

“We had fought to become integrated, and this was a step to set us apart again,” she said. “But as I went around the country talking, particularly to World War II women . . . this was something we needed to do.”

Returning from the war, “in many cases they were just told to go home, and they didn’t even get VA benefits right off the bat,” retired Maj. Gen. Dee Ann McWilliams, president of the Women’s Memorial Foundation, said in an interview. For them, commemorating their service was important because: “It says, ‘What you did was important to your country.’ ”

The memorial rose from a dilapidated structure just outside the cemetery gate that had been erected during the Hoover administration.

Now the site, which includes indoor exhibits, attracts 150,000 visitors a year.

Some visitors are scholars who come to view artifacts related to women’s military service — including books, photographs, documents and other objects donated by people around the country. Veterans can register and add a picture, the dates they served and a personal story.

Lt. Col. Carmen Brown-Hill, 47, traveled from Oklahoma City to attend the anniversary, 20 years after being there for the memorial’s unveiling.

Back then, the Iraq veteran recalled, “You wanted to say, ‘Wow, it’s about time.’ It was perfect timing and it was much needed.”

However, to retired Army Col. Flora Sullivan, 75, a Vietnam veteran, the thought that there would be such a memorial had not occurred to her while she was serving.

“That’s back in the ’60s, and in those days women just didn’t get very far in the service,” she said. “I didn’t know I was being discriminated against.”

Sullivan, who lives near Philadelphia, attended the ceremony with a sister and niece who also served, and a sister who did not.


Attendees listen to a speaker at the memorial. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

Four attendees shade their eyes from the fall sun. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

Her niece, retired Lt. Col. Diane Huber, 59, who lives outside Tampa, said her mother and aunt had eased the path for future generations: “It’s fun to hear their stories of what people have gone through.”

Speakers included retired Gen. Ann Dunwoody, who was the first American woman to become a four-star general. But as retired Gen. Janet Wolfenbarger, another four-star general, told the attendees, “The real objective is to have no more firsts, that the opportunities and successes of women in the armed forces become routine.”

Over the 26 years that she served, Chiccarelli quietly broke some barriers. She was one of the first female dentists on active duty, and among the first servicewomen given the option to wear pants instead of a skirt. An image of her walking in pants was used on a recruiting poster.

But she also endured ingrained sexism. At meetings with colleagues, she said, “They’d go around and say, ‘Doctor, do you have something you want to say? And Elvira?’ ”


Retired Air Force Lt. Col. Elvira Chiccarelli, 67, left, who was a dentist, and her namesake daughter Air Force Capt. Elvira Chiccarelli, 26, a pediatric resident, hold hands at the ceremony. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

Her daughter Elvira Chiccarelli, 26, is a pediatric resident and Air Force captain who traveled from New Orleans for the ceremony. She said that the struggles of women like her mother made her own experience smoother and more equitable.

“We’re able to serve and not even get to think about the fact that we’re women,” she said. “Other than that we’re not expected to do all the pullups, I think everyone expects the same of me and I’m given the same opportunities.”