Wilma Vaught, Brigadier General, USAF (Ret.), one of the most highly decorated military women in United States history, broke through many of the bureaucratic and gender barriers that faced women in the armed forces during her nearly twenty-nine year military career. The many “firsts” she achieved helped pave the way for thousands of other military women to be judged based on their abilities, and not their gender. In 1967, President Johnson signed into law a measure finally permitting women to be promoted to the level of generals and admirals. That same law also lifted the quotas that had been placed on women in achieving other ranks. Today, due to the efforts of General Vaught and others like her, women have much more equality and respect, although, as Vaught insists, much still needs to be achieved.
After receiving her B.S. degree in Business from the University of Illinois, General Vaught enlisted in the Air Force in 1957. She rose through the ranks in the comptroller area, serving in Europe, Vietnam and various posts in the United States. Along the way, she achieved numerous distinctions. In 1966, she became the first woman to deploy with a Strategic Air Command bombardment wing on an operational deployment. In 1972, she was the first female Air Force officer to attend the Industrial College of the Armed Forces. In 1980, she became the first woman promoted to Brigadier General in the comptroller career field. In 1982, she was appointed Commander, U.S. Military Entrance Processing Command, North Chicago, Illinois, the largest command, geographically, in the military. In addition, she served as Chairperson of the NATO Women in the Allied Forces Committee and was the senior woman military representative to the prestigious Secretary of Defense’s Advisory Committee on Women in the Service. When she retired in 1985, she was one of only seven women generals in the Armed Forces, and only one of three in the Air Force. She has received numerous military decorations and other honors, including the Defense and Air Force Distinguished Service Medals, the Air Force Legion of Merit, the Bronze Star, and the Vietnam Service Award with four stars. She is also the first woman to command a unit receiving the Joint Meritorious Unit Award.
But perhaps General Vaught’s most lasting contribution will be her successful efforts to establish the Women in Military Service for America Memorial Foundation Inc. and raise funding to build the first major national memorial honoring women who have defended their country. As president of the foundation’s board of directors, Vaught spearheaded the campaign that raised over $20 million for the memorial. The memorial, standing at the main gateway to Arlington National Cemetery, is the first major memorial to honor the nearly two million women who have served in our nation’s armed forces. It stands as a place where the American people and visitors from around the world can learn of the contributions that thousands of American women have made to the military and to their country.