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This women’s memorial honors millions of ‘sisters in arms’

For the 3 million women who have served in the U.S. military, there's a growing effort to highlight and register their place in history. Going back to the American Revolution, they have held a variety of roles, and are now the fastest-growing group of veterans. Judy Woodruff reports on the Women in Military Service for America Memorial’s work to gather and commemorate their names, photos and stories.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    On this holiday individual stories of service and sacrifice often get lost in the headlines.

    Tonight, Judy Woodruff reports on a memorial dedicated to the three million women who have worn the uniform on behalf of the United States.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    This gathering of military women is not the kind of event that captures much attention each year, when members of the Congressional Caucus for Women's Issues gather to pay tribute to outstanding soldiers, Marines, airmen and sailors, at the Women in Military Service for America Memorial at the entrance to Arlington National Cemetery outside Washington.

    And each year comes a refrain, that more should be done to commemorate their contributions.

  • Robert Wilkie:

    Unless we know the story and the sacrifices of our in uniform, we cannot understand the sacrifices made to make this a more perfect union.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    To really know those stories, the Women's Memorial is trying to register every woman who has served in the U.S. armed forces.

    So far, their count is 265,000, or only about 10 percent. Women are the fastest growing group of veterans. They have served in a variety of roles dating back to the American Revolution and, as of 2015, are cleared for all combat roles.

    Women vets or their family members have to opt into the register. There is no automatic government database that the private memorial can access.

    Major General Dee Ann McWilliams, president of the Women's Memorial Foundation, says the more names, photos and stories gathered at the 21-year old memorial, the richer the overall story of women's military service.

  • Dee Ann McWilliams:

    This is the only memorial to women in the world. This is the place where the story of those women can be told and shown to the public.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    She told the story of one son who found his mother's entry, and only wished he had made the effort sooner:

  • Dee Ann McWilliams:

    He came into the memorial, pulled his mother up, and there was this picture. He had never seen his mother in uniform. And he got on FaceTime and showed his mother that she was registered, and then took her on a tour of the memorial.

    And when I met up with him, he was crying, because he never brought his mom here.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The register is housed in the memorial's education center that showcases more than 240 years of American women's service with the military, from the cane of Dr. Mary Walker, the only woman in history to receive the Medal of Honor, to the World War dog tags and Victory Medal belonging to Helene Coxhead, who joined the Navy at 18 and said those were the best years of her life, to a display on women POWs in World War II, and a photographic accounting of the growing and varied roles women played during the Vietnam War.

    There's a special exhibit honoring Jessica Ann Ellis, a combat medic in the Army who died at age 24 when an IED blew up her vehicle in Baghdad 10 years ago this month. She earned a Bronze Star and Purple Heart as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

    And amidst the memorabilia, visitors can see close to 7,000 yellow ribbons suspended from the ceiling honoring every fallen service member killed in theater since September 11.

    Eighty-eight-year-old retired Brigadier General Wilma Vaught, who joined the Air Force in the 1950s was one of the earliest women to make the rank of general officer. She was also the first woman to deploy with an Air Force bomber unit.

    General Vaught was the driving force behind the memorial.

  • Wilma Vaught:

    Sometimes, service in the military takes all you can give. All you can give mentally. All you can give physically.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Chief Master Sergeant Lisa Arnold agrees.

  • Lisa Arnold:

    A young woman needs to understand that she can be very successful because of the women who have come before her.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    She oversees development of long-range strategic plans affecting over 250,000 service members and was the first woman to be a command chief in Afghanistan, leading over 2,000 Air Force enlisted men and women in the war.

    Paying it forward is part of her mission.

  • Lisa Arnold:

    I look at it as moving the next roadblock out of the way, so the young lady behind me doesn't have to do that. I feel like I carry a proverbial shovel with me because the path has been dug, but I dig a little bit deeper and a little bit further for the next person that wants to join our service.

    And it doesn't matter what service. We're all sisters in arms.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Another sister with a shovel is Sergeant Major Christal Rheams of the U.S. Army, who was honored along with Arnold.

    Rheams has performed a variety of roles, from aiding humanitarian efforts for Cuban refugees, to serving as a vocalist in the U.S. Army Band. Now she's a role model to daughter Aria who wants to be a military lawyer and attends college on a ROTC scholarship.

  • Christal Rheams:

    The stories send a signal. I think it's interesting to look back and see who's done what. You know, it would be interesting for my daughter, for example, to be able to look up and say, you know, that's my mom or my granddaughter or my great-granddaughter.

    Or — you know, it's important for those stories to be told and to be held somewhere.

  • Aria Rheams:

    It's constantly seeing my mom readily go to work and put selfless commitment just to the country. That's something I would love to do too. Like, I would like to be like my mom.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And as women serve in greater numbers, there are reminders of the ultimate sacrifice, of course, such as Major Marie Rossi, the first woman in military history to serve in combat as an aviation unit commander during the first Persian Gulf War.

    She was killed in the line of duty when her aircraft crashed; 1.9 million of the nation's 20 million veterans are now women. The memorial organizers say it's important to acknowledge their stories in life and commemorate them in death.

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