United States Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson WIMSA Speech 2017
United States Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson gave a speech for the Women in Military Service for America Memorial on November 28, 2017. Read the transcript of her speech remarks here.
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Secretary Wilson: (00:02)
I thought Janet was going to make me drop and do some pushups. Well, it’s a real pleasure to be here with you this evening and happy 20th anniversary to all of you. Of course the traditional 20th anniversary gift is china. I don’t think that would work. General Vaught, you should be proud of what you started here, and we are all deeply grateful to you.
Secretary Wilson: (00:43)
I actually met General Vaught when I served on the Defense Advisory Committee on women in the services in the early 1990s. And I have to say that I was terrified of General Vaught. It is really hard to believe that it took until 1985 for this memorial to be approved. Because by that time, two million American women have served in uniform for our country. Two million women have served. And you know one of the neat things about that? Every single one of them was a volunteer. Every one of them. And we even had women and who disguise themselves just to be able to fight and to serve this country. In the Civil War, Dr. Mary Walker was a battlefield surgeon who set the standards for operating procedures and also for fashion by wearing men’s clothing for better mobility. And she got arrested several times for impersonating a man. She is also the only woman to have been awarded the Medal of Honor.
Secretary Wilson: (02:19)
Women were finally allowed to join the military in the last years of World War I, and more than 10,000 served as nurses without rank or commission, but they were in the military. On the Western Front, they faced sniper fire and bombs. Army nurse Beatrice MacDonald had a piece of shrapnel slice through her eye and she stayed on duty with only one eye to the end of the First World War. Our nation lost 400 women serving in World War I, serving as nurses. We mobilized over 400,000 women in World War II for non-combat roles. 88 women became prisoners of war in the Second World War, and we lost 38 WASP pilots. The Cadet Nurse Corps trained over 100,000 nurses, two of whom are with us here tonight, Peggy Bixler and Dolores Sullivan.
Secretary Wilson: (03:40)
Joan Willour is here, she enlisted in the Marines as a 20 year old, which was considered under age at the time. Her mother had to sign the papers. Captain Doris Fenner served in China with General Marshall’s mediation staff. And the women’s Army Air Corps Captain Roxie Remley is here from Statesboro, Georgia. She is 98 and still going strong.
Secretary Wilson: (04:17)
Now, Roxy came in as a motor pool person, but that was only a cover. Because she was trained to operate something top secret at the time, radar equipment. In fact, she was in a special squad room, it was called battalion X. So no one would know anything called X is supposed to be secret, folks. Call it M or something. Battalion X, it was stationed at the time at what Roxy called Bowling Field in 1943. It was a special experiment by the United States military under General Marshall to see whether women could master the complexities of air defense using this new technology called radar. In 1948, the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act allowed women to serve as permanent regular members of the Armed Forces. But in 1957, the Air Force had one Colonel’s position for women, just one, the director of women in the Air Force.
Secretary Wilson: (05:29)
It Was actually against the law for women to be promoted beyond the rank of Colonel until 1967. That was it. And the opportunities and the career paths open to women in the military, we’re quite limited. But in 1967, Congress lifted the 2% cap on women in the military and allowed women to advance to general and admiral ranks, which began in 1970 with Army Brigadier General Anna Mae Hayes.
Secretary Wilson: (06:04)
And in 1973, the draft ended, and the all-volunteer military was formed. And the nation realized that in order to provide for the common defense, we would have to attract exceptional talent and open the ranks even further to those who were qualified. The first woman two star general was pinned in 1973 General Jeanne Holm. I had the pleasure of meeting Jeannie Holm and right into her seventies and eighties, she was still a pistol. She was the director of the women in the Air Force. In the 1970s I was recently reminded and had the opportunity earlier this week to talk to some United States senators about potential changes to the basic allowance for housing that would affect married couples who had dependents. Amazingly, they only want to change it for those who have dependents, not for everybody else. And I reminded the United States Senate in the 1970s, women had to prove that their spouses were actually dependent upon them in order to get benefits. That changed. And the woman who argued it before the Supreme Court was named Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Secretary Wilson: (07:28)
Ruth also argued the case, and actually, it was her opinion rather that forced Virginia Military Institute to integrate. In 1997 in the seventies, women sued for admission to ROTC and to the service academies and the Congress eventually changed the law. I actually remember where I was as a junior in high school, watching the black and white television on my mother’s mantel in her bedroom, when Walter Cronkite did a story is saying that women were entering the United States Air Force Academy. My grandfather had flown in the First World War. He came to America in 1922 and he was a barnstormer and he opened airports all over New England. And then in the Second World War, he flew for his new country. He flew for the United States of America as an auxiliary Air Force pilot.
Secretary Wilson: (08:41)
My father started flying when he was 13 and he enlisted in the Air Force after high school, and he was a crew chief and a mechanic on the F84 Thunder Jet. And after left the Air Force, he came back home and married his high school, sweetheart, my mother. And in the 1950s, when a lot of women didn’t even drive cars, he taught my mother to fly. They rebuilt aircraft together. My father was a member of the Experimental Aircraft Association, and I grew up in a two bedroom house, it was about a 1600 square foot house and it had a kitchen and a living room and a den and two bedrooms. And the den was actually supposed to be my bedroom. But I was in with my two brothers because my dad was building an experimental open cockpit biplane inside the 1600 square foot house.
Secretary Wilson: (09:51)
My mother was a very tolerant woman. But when they announced that they had opened the Air Force Academy to women, my father had died when I was young, but my grandfather was still alive. And my mother said, “Well, you may want to talk to your grandpa about that.” I remember where he was sitting in his living room when I went to talk to him. Here’s a man who had started flying shortly after the Wright brothers and lived to see a man walk on the moon. He’d flown in two world wars. He was the first fixed based operator to open and run an airport that is now called Manchester Boston Regional Airport. He had been a big part of civil aviation and started the Civil Air Patrol in the State of New Hampshire. And he had two sons and five grand sons and me.
Secretary Wilson: (10:53)
So I told him I was thinking about this Air Force Academy thing and he got real quiet. And then in his soft, Scottish brogue he said, “Well, I flew with some women in World War II, the WASPs, they were pretty good sticks. So I guess that’d be okay.” So with his blessing and a full ride scholarship, I became the first person in my family to go to college. Thank you to those of you who went before and who opened the doors for the rest of us.
Secretary Wilson: (11:40)
It took until the 1990s, the Congress to authorize women to fly in combat or to serve on combat ships. And in fact, it was after the Persian Gulf War, that things really started to change. In 1991, the Persian Gulf War was the first war that was really carried live to American homes, because CNN had just become a thing. And I remember being on the National Security Council staff and watching the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff at the time, talking about the actions and the preparations in the Persian Gulf. And Colin Powell, bless his heart, said something I will never forget. He kept talking about our men and women in the military, our men and women in the Persian Gulf. Until that time, I never heard a senior leader in the United States military say anything other than, “Our men in harms way.” And America suddenly was realizing that the all volunteer force had gone co-ed.
Secretary Wilson: (13:10)
It was a wonderful change. And it opened further reflection on the part of the Congress as to why the 1948 law that prohibited women from flying in combat and prohibited women from serving on combat ships made sense anymore. A woman named Patsy Schroeder out of Colorado decided that it didn’t and often an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that year to strike that provision of the law. A group of women, military officers, most of them pilots, started to take leave and come to Washington to camp out in the offices of Senator Roth and Senator Kennedy, and to explain to senators why they needed to put a similar provision in the Senate version of the bill.
Speaker 2: (14:06)
Secretary Wilson: (14:09)
I remember that because as military officers, they couldn’t actually lobby. But by that time, I was a civilian. And they could answer all kinds of questions because they could provide technical advice and answer particular questions. In a two week period, that group of women and a handful of us who were former officers in the military, went to visit every member of the United States Senate. And over the objections of the chairman and the ranking member of the Defense Authorization Committee at the time, Senator Roth and Senator Kennedy’s amendment passed and the path for women in combat opened.
Secretary Wilson: (14:59)
In 1998, one year after this memorial opened here, women fighter pilots flew the first combat missions off an aircraft carrier. Women have fought hard and sacrificed much to get here. And in our Department of Defense, across our total forces, there is a common truth: courage recognizes no gender. Amelia Earhart said, “The most difficult thing is the decision to act. The rest is merely tenacity.”
Secretary Wilson: (15:49)
More than 275,000 women have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. They have demonstrated tremendous resilience, adaptability, and capacity for innovation. They have led and served and sacrificed, and we are all deeply grateful for it. A lot of doors have opened in the last 35 years since we made it through the zoo, but there are also doors that we need to make sure stay open and encourage girls to walk through those doors. We have to prepare the next generation for leadership in traditional and unconventional roles, as space experts and programmers, data integrators, engineers. We have to stay on the cutting edge of science and technology to maintain our military supremacy and our national security into the 21st century. And we cannot deny ourselves half the talent, half the resources, half the potential of our nation. We must look down the road and keep doors open for the next generation. So we’ve got a responsibility to our daughters and our granddaughters to continue paving the way, to continue challenging them, to have expectations of them, to be leaders in a very complex world.
Secretary Wilson: (17:41)
In the early 2000s I came over to this Memorial on a beautiful spring evening for the swearing in ceremony, a celebration, Andy Sobel, a general officer who was a friend of mine and my family’s, was pinning on a second star. That’s a really big deal. And I brought my daughter along who was about six years old or so at the time. And it was a wonderful ceremony and reception, and my daughter kind of took it all in, was messing around in the fountains and running her fingers over the stones.
Secretary Wilson: (18:20)
And at one point I said, “Katie, this is a really big deal. Do you know that I don’t think when I was on active duty ever even met a woman general?” She didn’t think it was all that impressive. That is impressive. For our daughter’s generation, it’s not a big deal. It’s okay to dream to be a general, because you’ve already done it. And you’re role models for them all. Through your actions and your actions, they can say, “I can do that.” The way women looked at General Wilma Vaught, General Carol Mutter, Admiral Alene Duerk, and said, “I can do that.” Military women can follow their dreams to the stars. Thanks to all of you for your courage and your tenacity. God bless you all. And God bless [inaudible 00:19:36].