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Military women's sacrifices honored by memorial
By Lee Litas | Daily Herald Columnist
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Published: 5/27/2008 12:04 AM

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"In the beginning of a change, the patriot is a scarce man, and brave, and hated and scorned. When his cause succeeds, the timid join him, for then it costs nothing to be a patriot."

These strong words, taken from "Mark Twain's Notebook" back in 1904 have not lost their potency with time. Despite their inherent controversy, they just may aptly describe the brave men and women who over the centuries have carried the torch of the enlisted for all civilians.

On Memorial Day, as we recalled and honored those who have fought bravely both on the front lines and in supporting roles, it matters little on what side of the political ideal we may find ourselves. The only thing that does matter is the undeniable fact of the existence of these individuals; their stories and memories forever preserved as part of our own cultural heritage.

Born 150 miles south of Chicago, retired U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Wilma L. Vaught does not agree with Twain's (nee Samuel Clemens) sentiment.

"It does cost something to be a patriot. It takes a part of your life. To the average person who has never served, for that person it may not cost anything to be a patriot, but for the person who served in the military, there is a price, and sometimes that price is a life," said Vaught.

Having served in the United States Air Force for more than 28 years, Vaught retired in 1985 from the U.S. Military Entrance Processing Command in North Chicago as one of the most highly decorated women in American history.

A Vietnam veteran, and one of the few military women who was not a nurse in that war, Vaught was also one of a handful of women in the world who, when promoted to the rank of brigadier general in 1980, had ever achieved such a distinction.

The Military Entrance Processing Command, situated just outside Waukegan, is part of the Naval Station Great Lakes and the only Navy Boot Camp in the entire United States. Opened in 1911, it has seen more than 4 million enlisted men and women come through its gates. To date, every enlisted in the country essentially comes through our back yard before being shipped elsewhere. The naval station is also Lake County's largest employer, supporting about 20,000 workers, both military and civilian, on any given day.

"It's amazing that most people don't know this. We also have approximately 8,600 retirees within a 40-mile radius, so pretty much no matter where you live or work in the Lake County area, you probably know a veteran," said Chief Petty Officer and Assistant Public Affairs Officer, Rhonda Burke.

Vaught is one of more than 2.5 million women who have served in our nation's defense since its inception more than 220 years ago. Taking up the cause to preserve the history of such veterans is the Women's Memorial in Arlington, Va.

"Our mission is to assure that the stories of women are told so that their record of service is maintained for years to come," said the memorial's director of development and public relations, Ret. Army Lt. Col. Marilla Cushman, originally of Buffalo Grove.

Located at the gateway to Arlington National Cemetery, the Women's Memorial houses photos and stories of servicewomen from the American Civil War to present, both living and dead. During her service, Vaught had many a friend, colleague, even family member killed in the line of duty.

"Yes, it hurts. In the military, there is danger. There are those who lose their lives and we regret it, but the important thing is that life goes on and we must go on to make the world a better place and hopefully, someday, we might come to that moment when people would recognize that we could do so much better if we were at peace," said Vaught.

To read the full story of Brig. Gen. Wilma L. Vaught, those of others, or to register your own story of service, go to: