Remarks at the Groundbreaking Ceremony for the Women in the Military Service Memorial in Arlington, Virginia
Thank you very much. Thank you, General Mutter. Thank you to all the fine active duty and veteran women, servicepeople who have just speaken—spoken. Speaken! I can't even talk, I'm so excited. [Laughter]
I'll tell you, when our wonderful World War I veteran got through talking, I thought there's no point in my saying a word. It has all been said. I thank all the members of our military, beginning with the Secretary of Defense, the Service Secretaries, General Shalikashvili, the Joint Chiefs, those who preceded them—I see General Powell and others here—for their support of this endeavor. I thank the Members of Congress who are here. General Vaught, I thank you for your determination. I don't believe that anyone in the United States could have said no to you on any important matter; I know I couldn't. And I congratulate you on this triumph of your vision and will.
To all the remarkable servicewomen who surround me here, out in the audience and on the podium, let me say to all of you: Thank you for your service to America. We are all proud to be here to break ground on a memorial that will recognize a contribution that you have made far beyond the call of duty.
Women have been in our service, as has been said, since George Washington's troops fought for independence, clothing and feeding our troops and binding their wounds. They were in the struggle to preserve the Union as cooks and tailors, couriers and scouts, even as spies and saboteurs. Some were so determined to fight for what they believed that they masqueraded as men and took up arms.
Women were there during the two World Wars, and slowly, our military establishment that for decades had sought to limit women's roles brought them in to serve as WACS and WAVES, SPARS and WASPS and Women Marines. In our Nation's shipyards and factories, women helped to build democracy's arsenal. From the beaches of Normandy to the Pacific Islands, they endured bombs, torpedoes, disease, deprivation to support our fighting forces.
Despite this history of bravery and accomplishment, for very much too long women were treated as second class soldiers. They could give their lives for liberty, but they couldn't give orders to men. They could heal the wounded and hold the dying, but they could not dream of holding the highest ranks. They could take on the toughest assignments, but they could not take up arms. Still, they volunteered, fighting for freedom all around the world but also fighting for the right to serve to the fullest of their potential. And from conflict to conflict, from Korea to Vietnam to the Persian Gulf, slowly, women have overcome the barriers to their full service to America.
The past few decades have witnessed a remarkable series of firsts: the first woman company commander, the first female service academy graduate, the first woman skipper, the first female fighter pilot, the firsts that are here with us today. Twenty-five years ago this month, Anna Mae McCabe Hays became the first woman promoted to general. Hazel Johnson-Brown was the first minority woman to reach that rank. And 2 years ago, it was my honor to nominate the Secretary of the Air Force, Sheila Widnall, to become the first woman to head one of our service branches. I am honored to be with all of them today.
But just as important as these firsts are those who have followed them, proving that they were not an accident or an aberration, for women today are test pilots and drill sergeants, squadron commanders and admirals, academy instructors and service recruiters. I am very proud of the fact that during our administration almost 260,000 new positions in the military have been opened to women who wish to serve.
And I might say that this is a tribute not only to the women in the service but to the men in leadership positions who had the wisdom and the understanding and the ability to proceed with this remarkable transformation and strengthening of our military in a climate of tolerance and teamwork and respect. I know of no other institution in our society which could have accomplished so much in such an incredibly efficient and humane and professional way. And so we should be proud of all who played a role in that.
And let me say, before I go further, our Nation, as you know, is involved now in a great debate over the subject of affirmative action. Before people rush to judgment, I would like to remind all Americans that the United States military is the strongest in the world because it has found a way to make the most of the talents of every American without regard to gender or race. And as a nation, we must continue to search for ways to make the most of the talents of every American without regard to gender or race.
There are so many individual stories, the stories that this memorial will tell. But in their detail and drama, they help us understand more of what has occurred than the speeches we can give. Some of these women are here today, and I would like to ask them to stand:
Women like June Wandrey Mann, who volunteered for the Army Nurse Corps in the Second World War, who served 2 1/2 years overseas from primitive field hospitals in Tunisia and Italy to a center for concentration camp survivors outside of Munich. In her courage and caring, Lieutenant Wandrey represents the best of America. Would you please stand. [Applause] Thank you. And I might add, you still look terrific in your uniform.
Women like Charity Adams Earley, who was mentioned earlier, the Women Army Corps' first African-American officer. Along with thousands of other African-American veterans, both men and women, she helped our Nation act on a truth too long denied, that if people of different races could serve as brothers and sisters abroad, surely they could learn to live together as neighbors at home. Colonel, would you please stand. [Applause.] And I might add, she gives a resounding speech.
Women like U.S. Air Force Captain Teresa Allen Steith of the 60th Air Mobility Wing from Travis Air Force Base in California, who was among our first soldiers to set down in Haiti last year and who for 3 months helped planes and troops and cargo move in and out of the Port-au-Prince airport. Because she and the rest of our troops did their job so well, the people of Haiti now, remarkably, have a second chance at democracy. And this Sunday, this Sunday, they will be going to the polls to exercise their newfound rights for the first time in 5 years. And this time, they won't be stolen from them, thanks to people like you, Captain. Thank you very much, and God bless you.
Women like Barbara Allen Rainey, the mother of two daughters, the Navy's first female aviator, tragically the victim of a training crash. Her story reminds us that even in peacetime, those who wear the uniform face danger every day. Now she rests just behind me in the quiet of these sacred grounds.
This memorial will tell the stories of these women and hundreds of thousands more. It makes a long overdue downpayment on a debt that we will never fully repay, a debt we owe to generations of American women in uniform who gave and continue to give so much to our country and a debt we owe yet to future generations of women who will in the future dedicate their own lives to the defense of our freedom.
May this memorial say to each and every one of them: We cherish your devotion; we admire your courage; we thank you for your service.
God bless you, and God bless America.
NOTE: The President spoke at 1:10 p.m. at Arlington Cemetery. In his remarks, he referred to Maj. Gen. Carol Mutter, USMC, Commander, Marine Corps Systems Command, and Brig. Gen. Wilma Vaught, USAF (ret.).
William J. Clinton, Remarks at the Groundbreaking Ceremony for the Women in the Military Service Memorial in Arlington, Virginia Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/221303