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Gore Joins an Estimated 30,000 in Honoring Military Women

By Marylou Tousignant and Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, October 19, 1997; Page B01

The sea of faces stretched out from the base of Arlington National Cemetery along Memorial Drive, farther than most could see. From California and New York they came. From Montana and Florida, and from just down the road.

Young Air Force women in their crisp blue uniforms. Glinting captain's bars on the shoulders of a female Army officer. Test pilots, gunner's mates, nurses, military cadets.

Then there were the trailblazers: the generation of women from World War II and Korea, proudly sporting their veterans' caps and clutching old photographs and commendations as they scanned the crowd for an old friend or two from those long-ago days.

"We also served," said the sweat shirt one wore.

Indeed, they had, and the moment these women had eagerly awaited -- a moment some thought might never come -- had arrived. In a ceremony wrapped in pride and patriotism, the nation's 1.8 million military women, who have served from the Revolution through the present, were honored yesterday with the dedication of the Women in Military Service for America Memorial on hallowed ground at Arlington.

"At long last, here in our nation's capital, we can unveil a memorial that says to every servicewoman, past and present, `Thank you . . . for what you have done,' " Vice President Gore told the cheering crowd, which organizers estimated at 30,000.

"This memorial has been forged by the countless acts of bravery and sacrifice of generations of America's servicewomen," Gore continued, "by their centuries of patriotism and patience, their blood and valor, their pain and perseverance."

The emotional high point of the 90-minute service came when 101-year-old Frieda Mae Hardin, of Livermore, Calif., came to the m icrophone, wearing her World War I Navy yeoman's uniform and wide-brimmed straw hat.

Hardin, who fretted for days about whether she would be able to deliver her brief remarks without a glitch, was escorted by her 73-year-old son, a retired Navy captain. "Loud voice, Mother," he encouraged her as she looked out over the assembled throng.

"In my 101 years of living, I have observed many wonderful achievements," Hardin said in a strong voice, "but none as important or as meaningful as the progress of women taking their rightful place in society."

Hardin told the young women in the crowd that "a world of opportunity" awaits them in the military. "For my part, I have always been very proud of my Navy service," she said. "It is not likely that I will be meeting with you again, so I bid each of you a fond farewell."

As Hardin slowly made her way back to her seat among the assembled VIPs, many in the audience wiped away a tear. "I wouldn't want to follow that one," one man in uniform said, referring to the next speaker.

The $21.5 million women's memorial, a 35,000-square-foot education center located at the entrance to Arlington National Cemetery, was 13 years in the planning and opens to the public tomorrow. Using computers, visitors will be able to call up photographs and personal stories explaining the role women have played in the armed services.

"Now we can tell the untold story of women in military service," said Defense Secretary William S. Cohen. "Now their heroism is chiseled in the stone of our national memory."

Helena Lisle doesn't like to talk about her heroism, which earned her a Bronze Star as an Army nurse at the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944. So her son talks for her.

When Bob Lisle, who lives in Dallas, learned of yesterday's ceremony, he called his 82-year-old mother in California and said: "You need to come to this. You did something important, and people need to be reminded of that, that women did heroic things."

The memories were rekindled again last night as several thousand people marched across Memorial Bridge to the cemetery for a remembrance service.

Women make up 11 percent of today's armed services and serve in almost all capacities in the military, but it wasn't always so, as many veterans noted yesterday.

"We blazed the trail for the youngsters today," said Betty Bevis, 76, of Tallahassee, a World War II Navy Wave. When she enlisted in 1943, Bevis said, some residents near the Portsmouth, Va., hospital where she worked posted signs in their yards that read: "WAVES and dogs keep off."

"At first we were oddballs," Bevis said, "but eventually people got used to us."

Even today, some hurdles remain. Air Force Capt. Patricia Salwei, 26, said that when people learn she is in the military, they assume she is a nurse. "The public doesn't always appreciate what women are bringing to the military," said Salwei, a scientist at the Defense Special Weapons Agency in Washington.

Fourteen female cadets from the Virginia Military Institute, which broke its 158-year-old men-only tradition in August, were applauded when they were introduced to the crowd.

"These women are all congratulating us, and we should be congratulating them," said VMI freshman Natasha Miller, 21, of Arlington.

Fellow cadet Ebony McElroy, 20, agreed, saying that earlier generations of women in the military had it tougher than the 26 young women now in the first coeducational class at VMI.

"VMI had a lot of time to prepare for us and put things into practice," said McElroy, of San Diego. "Many of these women had none of that. They went in with a lot of character and inner pride."

Nedra Maxfield loved the military so much she signed up twice, first with the Army in World War II and then with the Air Force during the Korean War. "My country needed me," said the 74-year-old from Fort Worth, who wore a handmade red-white-and-blue sign around her neck yesterday. On one side it showed her in her Army days; on the flip side was her Air Force photo and the question "Did you know me . . . ?"

Sue Williams, of Cynthiana, Ky., didn't have to look far to find a familiar face. She rode to Washington with 159 other veterans on four chartered buses. The women raised the money for the trip with bake sales, car washes and flea markets -- "whatever it took," Williams said.

"We have ladies who can barely hobble around, and then we have spry ones like me," said Williams, 61. "I told my family two years ago that I was coming to this if I had to walk. It means that much to me."

Former representative Mary Rose Oakar (D-Ohio), who in 1985 introduced the legislation that led to creation of the women's memorial, said yesterday that it will change the teaching of American history. "Now we will know of women's bravery and courage, their love and sacrifice for their country," she said.

Listening to those words, 14-year-old Nikki Dresser said she has heard lots of stories about her father's service in Vietnam but isn't sure what role her mother, also an Army veteran, played.

"Right now, I don't know what my mom did or how much she did. Maybe I'll understand it more," said Dresser, who came up with her family from Fort Benning, Ga.

Arissa Turner, 16, said yesterday's ceremony moved her one step closer to a military career. Both her parents are in the Army, and Turner is in ROTC at her Fort Knox, Ky., high school.

As she sat, mid-crowd, with her sisters, she said: "This shows me women can do anything. I feel like a part of history. This will eventually be in a book, and I can say, `I was there.' "

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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