WASHINGTON (AFPS, Nov. 5, 2007) - Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates paid tribute to women who have answered America's call to duty since the nation's founding during the Women in Military Service for America Memorial's 10th anniversary celebration here.

Located here at the entrance to Arlington National Cemetery, the memorial is the only major national monument dedicated to all women who have defended America from the Revolutionary War through current operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. The memorial was dedicated Oct. 18, 1997, and opened to the public on Oct. 20, 1997.

Secretary Gates, who served as the celebration's keynote speaker, said that women's military role has expanded since the memorial's dedication a decade ago.

"Consider that in 1997, when the memorial was new, few women staffed the crews of aircraft carriers. It is routine now," he told several hundred audience members gathered near the memorial's 30-foot high curved entrance Nov. 3.

"In 1997, women were new at training to be fighter pilots. Within weeks of September 11, 2001, female pilots were in the skies above Afghanistan - a reality that must have been a grim and galling surprise for the Taliban, who would not let a woman drive, educate herself, or even walk down a public street unescorted," Secretary Gates said as the crowed cheered boisterously.

"In every war and in every generation, American women have served the cause of freedom, going all the way back to the Revolution," Secretary Gates said of the roughly 2.5 million women who have served in the U.S. military. "A good deal has happened since the memorial went up ... (but) what has not changed is our respect for women throughout history who have stepped forward in defense of their families, their communities, and their country."

The secretary said women have "shared in the burdens and the tragedies of war," noting that nearly 100 women have been killed, and more than 550 wounded in Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Dawn Halfaker, a retired Army captain injured in Iraq, was one of seven female servicemembers who addressed the audience during a portion of the ceremony called "Voices of the Women." A rocket-propelled grenade severely wounded Capt. Halfaker in 2004 while she was deployed with the 3rd Infantry Division.

Speaking on behalf of female servicemembers wounded in current U.S. operations, Ms. Halfaker told the hundreds of former female military members in the audience that the women of her generation are inspired by their great example.

Other women servicemembers joining Ms. Halfaker onstage were Lorraine S. Dieterle, a former member of the Coast Guard who photographed the Victory in Japan Day celebration in New York City's Times Square, and who helped establish the women's memorial, and Marsha L. Four, who served in the 18th Surgical Hospital in Vietnam as an intensive care nurse with the Army Nurse Corps.

Navy Capt. Maggie L. Richard, a 22-year veteran nurse, Air Force Brig. Gen. Michelle D. Johnson, Air Force director of public affairs, and Lance Cpl. Sona P. Babani, a native Iraqi turned U.S. citizen, represented the other "Voices of Women" speakers. The niece of Esther P. Corcoran, a 101 year-old who was one of the highest-ranking female officers in the Women's Auxiliary Army Corps, and who fell ill before the ceremony, addressed the crowed on her aunt's behalf.

Gordon H. Mansfield, acting secretary of Veterans Affairs, said the Women's Memorial reminds the country that equality in America was forged in large part by the courage and perseverance of military women.

"Today, in this time of war, Americans know and understand that women in uniform are and have been, a vital part of our national defense," he said. "Every day, American service women are putting their lives on the battle line.

"And because of that fact," he continued, "there is no question that they have earned and deserve our nation's honor, respect and gratitude."

(John J. Kruzel writes for the American Forces Press Service)

Page last updated Mon November 5th, 2007 at 08:59