Female Veterans, and a Memorial to Them, Struggle to Honor Women Who Served

ARLINGTON, Va. — The advancing front of tourists in matching T-shirts, squinting toward the gently rolling hillsides covered with gravestones, made its way into America’s most famous cemetery by walking right past its grand, ceremonial entrance with barely a glance.

Inside those granite walls, with fountains, glass panels and gold relief, is the nation’s only major memorial to female veterans, one that chronicles their contributions since the American Revolution.

Yet, the Women in Military Service for America Memorial is constantly scrambling to stay afloat. Even as the nation seeks to canonize more and more of its war dead, contributions to this memorial are flagging.

Female veterans — historically the memorial’s biggest donor pool — have pulled back over the years, and today they often focus more on their postmilitary life, and civilian identity, after taking off the uniform. And federal money, which has always been limited for memorials, has become increasingly stretched across an ever-expanding landscape of tributes, which are all looking for new donors.

The perpetual move to build large war memorials in a universe of finite space and money raises broader questions about just how many entanglements the nation should commemorate in its most famous public spaces. Nearly a dozen memorials are in the works on or near the National Mall, a reflection of two decades of wars and a surge of civilian support, at least symbolically, to honor veterans, as well as a drive to recognize forgotten soldiers of prior conflicts.

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There are memorials planned to honor Native American and black veterans, gulf war veterans, and mothers of the dead. There is a memorial intended for the war against global terrorism, which needed special congressional approval because it is a continuing conflict, and another for emergency medical workers.

“We have had a significant number of new memorials built over the last quarter of a century while at the same time Congress allocates less and less for their upkeep,” said Beth Meyer, a landscape architecture professor at the University of Virginia and member of the federal Commission of Fine Arts, which reviews designs for the major public spaces in Washington.

Ms. Meyer has been a critic of the constant expanse of memorials, which she believes reduces the story of the United States to its war history. “Every single thing that has been added since the Vietnam memorial is funereal,” she said.

For now, through a combination of aggressive fund-raising and cutting expenses, the women’s memorial foundation has found some semblance of firm footing for the first time since its dedication in 1985. But “sustaining adequate operating funding is always a challenge,” said Maj. Gen. Dee Ann McWilliams, the president of the Women in Military Service for America Memorial Foundation.

By and large, memorials, which are a huge undertaking by their sponsors, struggle to get off the ground. “Each memorial faces their own issues,” said Rod Rodriguez, the chief executive for the Global War on Terrorism Memorial Foundation, which lists as board members numerous heavy hitters including former President George W. Bush. The group needed legislation to even contemplate a memorial since officially a war must be 10 years in hindsight to get one.

“What turned around the World War II fund-raising was Tom Hanks,” Mr. Rodriguez said, referring to the actor’s 1999 Academy Award speech for “Saving Private Ryan,” in which he plugged the memorial’s financial needs. “The 9/11 memorial had Gary Sinise. When will we get our person? I would have thought that passing the bill would have taken some notice, but it didn’t.”

Washington has long reveled in honoring its war heroes.

The city’s first memorial, the Tripoli Monument to officers who died during the Barbary Wars of the early 1800s, once sat just outside the Capitol building, but it was moved to Annapolis, Md., in the 1860s. Before the 19th century, most memorials — largely statues of war generals — were scattered among the capital’s many traffic circles and parks. Over time, memorials became more specific to various military divisions and individual wars.

“As early as the 1890s, you start hearing people talk about the landscape as militaristic,” said Kirk Savage, chairman of the history of art and architecture department at the University of Pittsburgh and a memorial expert. The fear was that “Washington is going to start looking like Gettysburg,” whose main Civil War battleground is a forest of statues, obelisks and historic markers. That concern caused the memorial train to slow for a while, Mr. Savage said, until the Vietnam memorial, which began in 1982, kicked off another wave that led to efforts to remember the Korean and Second World Wars.

In response, Congress passed the Commemorative Works Act in 1986, intended to curb projects on and around the National Mall. Memorials once approved by Congress must now go through an arduous 24-step process, overseen by an advisory commission in concert with the National Park Service. Groups have seven years to complete their projects and often need to seek an extension to raise money. Since 1986, 37 works have been approved, 19 have been completed and 12 are in progress.

Even in the universe of existing and planned memorials, the women’s war memorial is viewed as having a special place and function.

The building grew out of a planned gateway to Arlington National Cemetery that was never really completed. That grand entrance was more or less left to rot since its dedication in 1932. Brig. Gen. Wilma L. Vaught, a highly decorated Air Force veteran and the first woman to deploy with an Air Force bomber unit, hatched the notion of turning it into a memorial to honor women. That notion became a near obsession.

“She was so determined to get this done,” General McWilliams said. “She put up a good deal of her own funds to see that it was completed. She even auctioned off a million-dollar house and had then-Wonder Woman Lynda Carter come and draw the winning ticket. This is truly the house that Wilma built.”

The memorial passed the advisory commission’s long process and a design competition was held to preserve the existing structure with new elements, including an exhibition space, a reflecting pool and fountain, and a terrace aligned with the Lincoln Memorial. The memorial officially opened in 1997.

There are about three million female veterans, and about a quarter million have registered with the memorial. Some have come in faded uniforms, others in jeans and a sweatshirt, amazed to see their history on display.

“The women’s memorial is one of whole numbers of memorial projects that were part of the late 20th-century boom,” Mr. Savage said. “But it would be hard for me not to think that it was a response to the proliferation of war memorials to men.”

“Women and people of color are disproportionately not represented in the monument landscape in Washington,” he added, noting that this was not lost on female tourists, especially young ones, who traipse through the capital each year in search of their history “If you don’t see yourself there as a legitimate part of this country, that’s a problem, and that’s what makes the women’s monument stand out.”

The quest to maintain the women’s memorial also underscores broader themes of marginalization of female veterans. Although they are the fastest-growing group of an otherwise shrinking universe of American veterans, they make far less use of the Department of Veterans Affairs for their health care and other services, and unlike their male counterparts, they often subordinate their service as part of their broader identity.

“Partly there has been this stigma around women in the military,” General McWilliams said. “Most women don’t walk into a bar and say, ‘Hey, I am just back from the war,’ the way a man might.”

Above all, that is what the memorial seeks to address, she said: “We want to positively preserve the memories of women who served this country. It’s a part of our history that had been ignored.”

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