A living legacy to women who served in all branches of the U.S. military honors their service and sacrifice inside the Women’s Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery.
The museum in the memorial depicts the “duty, honor and pride” of the 2 million women who served to defend the United States, from the beginning of the Revolutionary War through today’s war in Afghanistan.
Situated at the ceremonial entrance to Arlington National Cemetery here, the $22 million memorial offers a grand welcome to the sacred military burial grounds with its neoclassical architecture.
Following 11 years of construction, the museum was dedicated on Oct, 18, 1997, after the Women’s Memorial Foundation spearheaded the effort to educate the public and honor women who defended the nation during all eras and in all services.
The museum’s “living” exhibits depict the past, present and future of military women on active duty, in the reserves, the National Guard and U.S. Public Health Service, in addition to the Coast Guard Auxiliary and Civil Air Patrol.
Additionally, the women who served in support of U.S. armed forces during wartime overseas in such organizations as the Red Cross, United Service Organizations, Special Services and the PHS Cadet Nurse Corps have a place of honor in the museum.
The Women’s Memorial is the only national museum of its kind, according to The Women in Military Service for America Memorial Foundation Inc. website. Its staff collects, preserves, documents and analyzes the history of women’s military service by gathering official and personal records, oral histories, photographs and memorabilia for its exhibits.
“Although women have always volunteered in defense of our nation, many of their contributions have been forgotten and are not recorded in today’s history books,” the website notes.
A signature feature of the museum is the Register, a computerized database of information on about 3,500 former military and current active-duty women who voluntarily registered. Each entry shows the servicewoman’s picture, dates of service, awards received, key memories of her service and other statistics.
The foundation registry invites veterans, active-duty, National Guard and Reserve servicewomen to register. Cadet nurses and service organization employees who served overseas during a war also are eligible to register.
The museum’s Hall of Honor pays tribute to fallen servicewomen in a somber room amid flags of U.S. states, territories and the military services. A small exhibit displays two books of female casualties while serving in the line of duty in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom.
The hall also honors women who served with ” … particular sacrifice and achievement. Honored are those who were killed in action, died in the line of duty, were prisoners of war or were recipients of the nation’s highest awards for service and bravery,” a description reads. A marble “Sister Block,” taken from the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery, stands formidably tall and wide, nearly ceiling-high in the room.
The glass-enclosed exhibits in the museum’s main section vary by era, and among them are reminders of today’s wars; one depicting “The War on Terror,” and another displaying service uniforms worn in Iraq and Afghanistan with the backdrop of a flag that reads, “We Remember 9/11.”
Exhibits titled, “Serving in the Military, from 1901 to 1945″ and another “Since 1946,” comprise the work of early servicewomen. The exhibits include World War II dog tags, identification cards, worn photos and service manuals titled, “If You Should be Captured, These are Your Rights,” and “Survival on Land and Sea.”
A citation for a Bronze Star medal, awarded to Della Polacek, reads, “In support of combat operations against the enemy in Manila, the Philippines,” for her service from April to July 1945.
Today, “The Greatest Generation” of World War II veterans are in their 80s and 90s, and the museum offers a multitude of World War II-era artifacts from 1941 to 1945 in exhibits titled, “Overseas in the Military,” “POWs Under Fire,” and “The War Ends.”
A huge wall visual tribute, “The Greatest Generation” displays life-like, hand-painted portraits, taken from old black-and-white photographs. Men also are depicted in this display – the only mention of male service members in the museum.
“The Forgotten War,” exhibit covers women who served during the 1950-53 Korean War. “The Era of Conflict — the Vietnam War,” tells the story of Army, Navy and Air Force nurses who comprised 80 to 90 percent of U.S. military women in Vietnam working on the ground, at sea and on evacuation flights, from 1964 to 1973.
March 4 will mark the opening of “Celebrating 40 Years of Women Chaplains: A Courageous Journey of Faith and Service.” The Women in Military Service for America Memorial Foundation Inc. website says the exhibit “tells the story of the scores of women, beginning in 1973, who answered God’s call to minister to the nation’s military members and their families in times of war and peace.”
Of all the meticulously planned exhibits and tributes, however, one extemporaneous display features a painting on an easel of Army SSgt. Jessica Clements, who left the military on a medical retirement following a roadside-bomb explosion in Iraq that left her with such severe traumatic brain injury that she had to learn to walk and talk again. Behind her painting is a large wall, filled with hundreds of notes to her, written by visitors.
Resident artist Chris Demarest said it started with a single drawing by a 6-year-old child. One week later, he said, the wall was filled with notes left by visitors, thanking Clements for her service. He calls it “The Wall of Thanks.”