A Q&A with Military Women’s Memorial President Phyllis Wilson
Listen to Phyliss Wilson talks about the memorial on The American Legion's podcast.
After celebrating its 25th anniversary last fall, the Military Women’s Memorial (MWM) is continuing its nationwide push to collect and document the stories of women who served.
At the 103rd National Convention in Milwaukee, MWM President Phyllis Wilson thanked American Legion posts and Auxiliary units for decades of financial support for the memorial, which is embarking on a multimillion-dollar renovation focused on exhibit galleries.
A 37-year Army veteran and life member of USS Jacob Jones Post 2 in Washington, D.C., Wilson spoke to The American Legion Magazine about the MWM’s registry of service, raising the memorial’s visibility and the full integration of women in today’s military.
What makes the Military Women’s Memorial a must-see? Certainly there are beautiful monuments and memorials around Washington, D.C. The unusual thing about the Military Women’s Memorial is it is more than just a wall or open-air venue. We are all of that, but we also have a massive education center. People can come inside, stroll down the long gallery and see these incredible stories of people who have defended the country from the Revolutionary War to today. We also have a gift shop and places for people to sit and watch documentaries and films. One of the most stunning parts of the memorial is the rooftop terrace; as you know, we’re at the entrance to Arlington National Cemetery. If you go up on our rooftop and look up the hill behind us towards Arlington House at the top and on to Arlington National Cemetery, you see the white grave markers going up this massive hillside, but also the Kennedy flame. As you turn and look toward Washington, D.C., there is nothing between us and the Lincoln Memorial, and the view is one of the most beautiful from a free and public location. You can understand why the Custis family chose that particular location to place their homestead. To have this view once you’ve been inside and seen these huge marble walls and the stories of the patriots – it’s one of those places nobody should miss when you’re in the area.
Do you have a favorite feature or section of the memorial? Inside is the Hall of Honor. It’s a smallish room; we do events in there, it seats maybe 50 people. This is where we honor the women who have given their lives in defense of this nation. Within are three large slabs of marble, probably 16 feet tall, standing side by side. They are over 100 years old. This marble was quarried the same day as the marble used to create the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, up the hill behind us. When we were building the memorial 25 years ago, the people creating it went back to the same quarry in Colorado …. Sadly, there was a very soft section of marble within the quarry, and they said it would probably be a year until they got to the kind we would want. We didn’t want to delay building the memorial, but they mentioned they’d been holding – at this point, for 70+ years – a massive slab of marble quarried for the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier as a backup in case something was broken in transport from Colorado to Washington or in the creation of the Tomb. To our good fortune, we received this massive slab of marble that was cut into three sister stones to the Tomb. The tomb guards are forbidden from touching the Tomb, but they know they can come here and lay their hands on these sister stones. It’s a very special place. We celebrate these women. We refuse to let them be forgotten. We say their names, and their stories are in the Hall of Honor – in particular, the 177 women who have died in combat zones since 9/11.
How are you raising the memorial’s profile? One of the big problems we have is because of where we’re located. The curved front wall to the memorial was built as the ceremonial entrance to Arlington National Cemetery back in the 1930s. Because of its historic nature we are precluded from putting any kind of name onto the grounds of the memorial itself. So as people drive in, there’s nothing that tells them what the wall even is, let alone that there is a museum dedicated to the 3 million women who served behind the wall, free and open to the public seven days a week. This has been one of our biggest challenges: trying to ensure that not just women, not just girls, but all of America comes to see these incredible stories of courage and service and patriotism. We’re making sure these stories are available to the public on our website, where you can do a 360-degree virtual tour of the memorial. We also have a YouTube channel, which has a lot of the videos located inside the memorial. Through organizations like The American Legion, with the reach we have, we can make sure everybody knows about this. We don’t feel like it only needs to be women who come. We proudly invite men to come and learn and see these incredible stories. Our timeline is just different than our male counterparts. It’s not right or wrong, it’s just the way history is marked. Our first woman to ever become a general in the U.S. military was in 1970, nearly 200 years after George Washington and other generals of the Revolutionary era, but that was the way it was. Legislation precluded us from holding that kind of rank. But we love to tell these stories and sort of compare and contrast.
Tell us about MWM’s Register and how a veteran can share her story of service. Approximately 3 million women have defended this country, from the Revolutionary War to today. We have about 305,000 stories in our database, which is fantastic, but it’s about 10% of all of those that should be. Certainly there are books written about particular women who have served in the military, but for many of us nobody’s going to write a book, even a chapter. That doesn’t make our story inconsequential. It’s important that our shared story, put together into one national database, show the progress from when women were primarily either secretaries or nurses in the military to today, where every career field, branch of service and rank is available to us. Whether you served for a couple of years or a couple of decades, it doesn’t matter. We can tell only the stories we know about, so we encourage every woman to put her story into the national registry. It’s super easy and all done online. Go to womensmemorial.org, create an account, and it walks you through it. Once you’ve uploaded your story, it creates what looks to me like a baseball card: your photo, years of service, where you served – and most importantly to me anyway, memorable experiences. What do you recall? Were you first in your field in any area? Were you first in your family to join? Were you first in that particular branch of service. All those kinds of memorable experiences encourage researchers to get in there. Whether you’re talking about women Marines of the ’40s and ’50s or those who recently completed a first training on the West Coast, we need these women to put their stories into our database, which is shared with researchers from around the globe. That’s how we live on and show what the trailblazers of 100 or 50 years ago did when it was much harder than it is today. We can see the growth in opportunities we are afforded as a result of what they did. But the stories have to be in there to show the proof.
You served 37 years in the Army, including mobilizing for Desert Shield/Storm and deploying during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Describe what it was like serving in a time of so much change for women in uniform. When you’re in the midst of it, you’re so busy doing your job, especially during wartime, that I don’t think you can actively appreciate the milestones, the changes, the opportunities suddenly put in front of you. It’s incredible to have witnessed. It was hard for somebody like me to get an opportunity to go to jump school, and now not only is the sky the limit, outer space is the limit. Women have served as space shuttle commanders, astronauts – you name it. Infantry. Every career field is open, and it’s been through the support of men and women at the highest levels of U.S. government who saw the need, who saw the value, of affording all of us this opportunity. And I don’t think we’ve let anybody down. We’ve more than proven our mettle. We can do all these things and do them very, very well.
In addition to your service, four of your sons are combat veterans. How did that give you a broader perspective on the experience of military families? The service and sacrifice is not something that for me personally I gave much thought to. This was my calling. This was exactly what I wanted to do. It’s made me so proud and so happy to be afforded these opportunities: language school, military intelligence, to work with classified information and get that information to people who needed to use it to win our wars. I do think it’s easier to be the person wearing the uniform than it is to watch somebody you care so much about leave for a combat zone. I worried much more for (my sons) than I ever did for myself. When I went to Iraq or traveled to Afghanistan, I wasn’t the least bit (worried). But I knew in my heart of hearts that my sons … went in with their eyes wide open. This is what they wanted to do; this was their calling. I’m very proud of them, but I do have to admit that as a mom there were times, especially when they were getting close to the end of their tours – that’s when I was the most unable to sleep at night, worried that something horrible was going to happen. Fortunately for me, all my sons have come home.
Women have made tremendous gains in regard to military service. What obstacles or inequities still still need to be addressed? That’s a hard one for me, because it never even occurred to me that there was something I was precluded from doing. Every time there was an opportunity, I seized on it. I don’t like to be the kind of person who somehow is looking for inequities. You get a little more pragmatic as you get older and realize it wasn’t done just to be mean-spirited toward females. Fifty years ago, society had not changed, and I would argue strongly that what women in the military have done, their service in combat zones and stateside … helped re-engineer and change the viewpoint here in the States. Women in the military have made a positive impact on American society, to where it’s no longer perceived that women can’t do certain things – that it’s too physical, too onerous, too challenging.
For young women considering the military, would you recommend it? In a heartbeat. I strongly suggest that all young Americans do some kind of service – something that calls them to be part of something that’s much bigger than themselves, where they have an opportunity to see the world from a different vantage point, where they can see what truly impoverished nations look like. I think that changes how you look at life. I would love to see more of them sign up. Like so many of us, I signed up to do four years, and that was going to be the end of it. I needed college money. And I fell in love with it. It was exactly what I needed to make my heart whole. That’s not so for everybody, but I think that for young women who choose to make the military at least the first chapter of their adult life, you can never take that away. It’s like your education. That can never be stripped away from you. In my first four years not only did I complete my associate’s degree, I also had plenty of military education that helped me achieve my bachelor’s degree soon after. So I’m all in. I think the military is a great opportunity for our young men and women to learn about who they are as individuals, what this nation stands for and how incredibly fortunate we are to be Americans.
What do you think the military could do better in terms of recruiting and retaining women? I think some of the steps they’ve taken recently, such as 12-week parental leave, identify that we’re in a talent war. If you want the kind of talent the military needs in order to operate to win our wars, you’re competing with corporate America and all the benefits packages out there. We have to look very hard at that now and not rest on our laurels of days gone by when we always met recruiting models. Times are different now. We always have to look at the budget, but what can we offer to our young men and women to encourage them to not only join but to stay? Recruiting is one cost, but certainly retention is another. How do we hold onto folks when corporate America is screaming for veterans because we have a work ethic, we know how to be on time, we know how to look for that second, third level of thought process that isn’t always inherent in some of the young Americans who have not had the opportunity to serve in the military? Now they’re looking at you choosing where you want to be assigned, where your first assignment’s going to be. They’re offering up some of those selection criteria, which is very different than back in the day, when you were at the whim of somebody making assignments.
How has the American Legion Family helped further MWM’s work? The American Legion has been one of our best financial supporters. When we were building the memorial more than 25 years ago, American Legion Auxiliary units across the nation were doing fundraisers and sending checks to us to help us build this place out. And certainly (American Legion) posts have done a great job of taking care of us. I would put a challenge out there to remember us in 2023 as we are doing a multimillion dollar renovation to bring the memorial into the 21st century, with new technology. The challenge is still there to not think we are finished; we’re not. (The memorial has) free admission, but we do have to pay the staff and our light bills and all the things that go with that. We rely on the generosity of Americans to keep us operating.
What military women have inspired you? Certainly the founder of the Military Women’s Memorial, Brig. Gen. Wilma Vaught. When she retired as a one star (general) from the Air Force in 1985, she was the senior ranking woman not only of the Air Force but the entire Department of Defense. She heard about the potential creation of the Military Women’s Memorial and ultimately became president of the foundation. She did that for 30 years, so the memorial is affectionately referred to as the House that Wilma Built. She’ll be 93 in March, and last July President Biden awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the nation, for her work with the Military Women’s Memorial. She still comes to the office and sits with me a couple of hours a week and gives me whatever is on her mind, things she remembers that I need to know as president of the organization. She’s also a walking history book; she served in Vietnam and in Spain, and in the era she served in, the ’50s and ’60s. She might be the only woman out of thousands of male military on an entire installation. She told me they had to be perfect, they couldn’t mess up anything, because people were just waiting for women to mess up and say, “See, women shouldn’t be in.” To this day she is a consummate professional. I very much adore her.
Let me tell you a quick story about a woman I met. She was here the day the memorial opened in 1997. Her name is Flo, and she was a nurse in Vietnam. I met her at an event a couple of years ago and she told me she’d been here with 40,000 other people the day this memorial was dedicated. I looked up her story in our database, and she gave me her card. I went in to see her story and a photo of what she looked like probably back in the 1960s. She wrote about her time in Vietnam and how her sister would send her care packages, which included her favorite dessert, Twinkies. One particular horrid week of too many combat wounded and dead coming to her hospital, she heard there was a care package for her and was certain what was in it. She ripped it open and the box of Twinkies was crawling with black ants. She was crestfallen. But her roommate said, “Throw them in the freezer to kill the ants, then flick them off.” In the next line, she wrote, “Those were the best darn Twinkies of my life.” I just fell in love with her. So we went to the grocery store and bought two boxes of Twinkies. I printed out her 8 x 10 story card from the register and sent a note with it; we mailed them to her in Virginia. She called me a few days later, laughing, saying, “I can’t believe you mailed me Twinkies.” I said, “I was going to put chocolate sprinkles on a couple just to be funny.” Those are the stories I will remember. So the challenge is for women to put their story in the register, and think of a memorable experience that will make us smile, maybe make us cry, but certainly leave an impression – not just where you served and what you did, though we need that information too.
What else do you want Americans to know about the Military Women’s Memorial? Visit us in person, of course! That would be our preference. We love spending time with our visitors. But if you cannot visit, please do go to our website and take that 360 virtual tour. It’s lovely, and if you keep clicking on those boot prints, it will take you through the entire memorial …. Also, don’t forget to follow us on social media and our YouTube channel, which has dozens of stories about individual women and groups of women. And you can watch events that occurred at the memorial, so you get a chance to see what it looks like inside. It’s a beautiful building that won all kinds of awards when it was designed. It still gives me goosebumps every day that I have the privilege of walking in there.
Matt Grills is managing editor of The American Legion Magazine.