On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
The Women’s Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery is hidden in plain sight, couched inside the grandiose granite entrance that was originally meant as the cemetery’s gateway. It’s the only major memorial to women veterans in the country. And soon, it will house the first monument in the capital region honoring women of the U.S. military.
“The Pledge,” originally commissioned by the U.S. War Dogs Association, shows a servicewoman in full combat gear kneeling in front of her military working dog. The bronze statue will be unveiled October 17, and the statue will be available for public viewing when the memorial reopens on October 18.
We sit down with sculptor Susan Bahary and Phyllis Wilson, president of the Women in Military Service for America Memorial Foundation, to talk about the significance of the new monument.
Produced by Cydney Grannan
KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. The Washington region is full of monuments, many honoring our nation's military and those who have served. But how many of those monuments honor servicewomen? This weekend, the new monument will be unveiled at the Women's Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery honoring the millions of women who have served in and alongside the U.S. military.
KOJO NNAMDIJoining us to talk about the new monument is Phyllis Wilson, the president of the Women in Military Service for American Memorial Foundation. She is also a retired Army chief warrant officer. Phyllis Wilson, thank you so much for joining us.
PHYLLIS WILSONWell, thank you for having me.
NNAMDIFor those who may not know, what is the Women's Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery, and where is it located?
WILSONWell, the Military Women's Memorial is perched at the ceremonial entrance to Arlington National Cemetery. The front wall of the memorial is actually a wall that was built as a retaining wall for Arlington back in 1932. And it sort of sat there somewhat dormant. And in the 1990s, it was approved by public law to become the front wall, if you will, of the Women's Memorial and Education Center. So, it's a very large building behind there, 33,000 square feet, which honors the three million women, as you eluded to, that have served in or with the military since the Revolutionary War.
NNAMDIAnd you just pointed out it's women who not only served in, but with the military. It's just not for those who formally served in the military. Who else does the memorial honor who served with the military?
WILSONThe women weren't legally allowed to serve in the military until -- in any fashion until 1901, with the Army Nurse Corps. So, women, even in the Revolutionary War, served in a myriad of roles to include disguising themselves as men on the battlefield, and were only recognized as women when they were found to be dead and they were preparing them for burial. So, it's always been -- those women, the women in the Civil War, the War of 1812 and along other times, Spanish American War.
WILSONBut the USO, the American Red Cross, there were a number of nurses that served in World War II, as an example, as American Red Cross nurses, the USO, so many other organizations. And those women that did serve as women Air Force service pilots were not considered in the military at the time. And it wasn't until the late 1970s that they were finally awarded, if you will, veteran status and recognition.
NNAMDIPhyllis Wilson, you are a 37-year veteran of the United States Army. What led you to go on to become the president of the Military Women's Memorial Foundation?
WILSONWell, you know, after I retired from the Army, I did a couple of other things along the way for a couple of years, year-and-a-half, and the opportunity presented itself. And while I initially was not even going to apply, similar thing that's happened to so many other military women and veterans that I've spoken with, I happened to park here in the Washington, D.C. area in a veteran spot near a grocery store.
WILSONAnd a gentleman quickly let me know that that was veteran parking, as if I was not -- should not have parked. And I told him that I was aware that it was veteran. And he asked me almost instantly, is your husband with you? And I told him no, that, you know, I had served. And we had that conversation, and apparently that still happens a great deal. That was just last year.
WILSONAnd as I was pushing the shopping cart, it made me realize that, had I been a man that had never served in the military, but had chosen, for whatever reason, to park in a veteran space, I don't think this gentleman would have challenged me on the parking. But, so often, we can go into a VA center, medical center. And while we're sitting there, somebody will invariably ask, you know, am I waiting on my husband? I'm like, no, I have a doctor's appointment of my own, thank you.
WILSONIt just happens, and I think even though we've been permitted to serve for so long, more than 100 years now, still we're a bit of an outlier. And that's what the Military Women's Memorial does, is tell the individual stories of all of us and what we've done to help change and set the conditions so the current and next generation of women never even think about being asked, are you a veteran or why did you park there?
NNAMDIJoining us now is Susan Bahary, who is the sculptor of "The Pledge," the new monument honoring military women. Susan Bahary, thank you for joining us.
SUSAN BAHARYThanks for having me.
NNAMDIEven though this new statue is housed at the Women's Memorial, it was the U.S. War Dogs Association that commissioned the sculpture. Can you tell us about that association and its vision for this project?
BAHARYYes, absolutely. They're a nonprofit and military support organization, the former and current U.S. military dog handlers and supporting members committed to promoting the long history of our military service dogs. And they established four dog memorials, educate the public about the service of these K9s.
BAHARYAnd they also provide support to the military working dogs with a very state-of-the-art kind of critical equipment while they're on active duty and then a retirement. They offer free healthcare programs and assist with returning military dogs to be reunited with their former handlers. So, they're great.
BAHARYAnd they had a vision that they wanted to honor our female military working dog handlers in this special way, but also honor all our female military members. So, they commissioned me to do it, and we offered it as a gift to the Women's Memorial, and that they so graciously and enthusiastically, you know, appreciated and received.
NNAMDIThe statue you created is called "The Pledge." What does it look like?
BAHARYSo, you know, it's a female military working dog handler in full combat uniform. And she's kneeling down, facing her seated war dog. They're just looking into each other's eyes, and you feel the connection. She’s touching the dog's face and the paw is on her knee and her hand is on the paw. And it's that moment before they go into battle together. So, "The Pledge" is their pledge to protect and defend our country, and at the same time it's, of course, their pledge to remain safe and complete their mission successfully.
NNAMDIYou can see a picture of the statue on our website kojoshow.org. It's absolutely amazing. Susan Bahary, why is it called "The Pledge?"
BAHARYWell, you know, our military, they do so much for us, and they're so devoted in their pledge of allegiance to our country. And I really felt that that was at the core. And so, they make the pledge, as I mentioned, to protect and defend our country. And they put their lives on the line, both, you know, our K9s and our women, not to mention the men. So, that's why.
NNAMDIPhyllis Wilson, you've already gotten a chance to look at the monument. What do you think of the statue?
WILSONOh, it is perhaps one of the most beautiful statues I've ever seen. It is life-size, so, as she said, this military working woman, her weapon is slung over her back, she's got her helmet on and she's just looking into the eyes. And I've been in Iraq and I've been in Afghanistan and I've seen the dog handlers, the military working dog handlers and the dogs, and that commitment that they make to each other. And, again, obviously, because it's a dog, it's an unspoken pledge.
WILSONBut to Susan's point, I absolutely agree that "The Pledge" is that unspoken commitment we've made to our brothers and sisters in arms that we will do everything we can to make sure they come home safely. And that's exactly what this is. And it's beautiful, it's up on a two-and-a-half, three-foot black stone slab that this dog is never going to get patina on it. It is so pet-worthy, it will be petted until it's shiny. And it's just incredible. And it's right in our lobby as you first walk into the Women's Memorial. It's breathtaking, and you almost do a stutter step for a second when you realize what you're looking at.
NNAMDILet's go to Corina in Sussex County, Delaware. Corina, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CORINAYes. Thank you for taking my call.
CORINAYou asked a question earlier, as a female service member had I been denied jobs or training or whatever because I was female, and I have, and I was. When I first joined the military in the early '80s, I scored extremely high on my ASVAB tests, and I was told I could do basically anything I wanted to do. So, I chose the nuclear power training program. And I was told that, well, we don't let females in here anymore, because the last one that came along didn't really like it and couldn't cut it, got herself knocked up. I ended up being, basically, a secretary, and it, I don't know, looking back, humiliating.
NNAMDIHow long did you stay in the service, Corina?
CORINAJust shortly over five years.
NNAMDIPhyllis Wilson, how have things changed since Corina's experience?
WILSONWell, Corina, thank you for calling in, because I, too, joined in the early 1980s, and have seen things vastly change. I didn't retire until 2018, which, because of those 37 years, I watched firsthand things change. I didn't go to jump school to jump out of airplanes until I was 32 years old in 1992, because that wasn't afforded as a slightly younger soldier because of these standards and these guidelines.
WILSONAnd even then, in the areas where I walked around with my jump wings and was jumping out airplanes, the males around there did not necessarily take a shine to me having done that. But things have changed so much. The women of World War II, in particular, really -- because of the vast numbers, 400,000 women served in World War II.
WILSONAnd in 1948, Harry Truman signed the Armed Service Integration Act that allowed women to, for the first time ever, stay in after a war. We only were allowed to serve during a war, plus six months, and we were out. And in 1948, that changed to a degree, but we couldn't be more than 2 percent of the military and very limited on roles. And then in the late '60s, 20 years after that, they finally took the cap off. We couldn't hold a rank above lieutenant colonel. So, a couple years after that we finally had our first woman general in 1970.
WILSONAnd, of course, service academies. We weren't permitted to attend service academies, West Point, Air Force Academy, the like, Naval Academy until 1976. So, the first women that graduated from that was in 1980 which is 40 years ago this year. So, it's amazing what we've seen as change. And then in just the last five years, we have women that are Rangers in Special Forces and combat engineers and in roles that we could've never imagined when Corina and I first joined in the 1980s.
WILSONSo, things have drastically changed but we just keep climbing on the shoulders of the generation before us and set the conditions, like I said, for what happens next. And that's the great thing about the Women's Memorial is we tell these stories and we share how things have evolved chronologically from the Revolutionary War 'til today.
NNAMDICorina, thank you so much for sharing your story with us. Susan Bahary, you're well known for your sculptures of service animals, which is why the U.S. War Dogs Association reached out to you for "The Pledge." What other service animal projects have you worked on and what have you learned about the relationships between handlers and the animals that they work with?
BAHARYOh, thank you. Well, it started in 1994 when I was commissioned to do our country's first official war dog memorial, "Always Faithful," the Doberman. And it was unveiled at the Pentagon and then it was located and installed permanently at the U.S. Naval Base on Guam at the War Dog Cemetery.
BAHARYWhen that happened it changed my life. I mean, I really got to meet some of our greatest generation. I was so touched and moved that it just turned the trajectory of my life and my artistic life to want to really share with the world the deeds and sacrifices and the kind of people, those in the military and even law enforcement are, of course, who do so much for the rest of us.
BAHARYSo I've done monuments to our service animals and their handlers throughout these many years including abroad in New Zealand, Australia and France. And it's always the same. It doesn't matter what generation or where you are in the world, it's a timeless thing, that human, you know, animal bond is everlasting. And what's remarkable and touching to me we well is that the handlers, the people, they're not -- they never ask for the recognition themselves in the form of a monument. They do ask for it for their animals though.
NNAMDIHere, now, is Camille in Ashburn. Camille, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CAMILLEOh, Kojo, when the monument at the Vietnam Memorial first opened with the women there, more than likely nurses, representing nurses, and this man laid on the lap of one of them. And as I'm walking around -- I had my daughters with me, and it's a very dark statue. And there's a what I swore was a solid-gold lipstick case. And when I saw that lipstick case, it brought to mind my cousin, who took so much abuse for having joined the Army because only two types of women joined the Army back then in the '60s, which scared me, and I didn't join.
CAMILLEI just -- you know, just a terrible crying moment to see that lipstick and all the women that suffered and were denigrated. My own dad was a Merchant Marine, and so we fought to get the Merchant Marines recognition for all the losses they took in World War II. So, it just seems whenever an opportunity is available to people to abuse someone or to not give them credit, they latch on wholeheartedly. It's just a very sad trait that we just can't seem to get over. Thank you for the...
NNAMDIYou're more than welcome. This monument is one of the processes of reversing that trend. Phyllis Wilson, what are you hoping servicemembers and all visitors to this monument will get out of visiting it?
WILSONWell, thank you. I think what I really want and hope that this will do, certainly, a statue with a dog appeals to a greater swath of the American public than just people that have served in the military, whether it's men or women. And we want them to come and see how there is such a connection between what women have done in the military that has really, we would argue, led to some significant societal changes here in the United States.
WILSONSo, we want to lure them in to come see this fantastic statue Susan has made for us. And then have them walk out, by the time they have seen these milestones and the hurdles we've climbed over, but walk out ultimately feeling incredibly proud of what they're seeing their nation do towards making the steps and gains to give women the opportunities that -- you know, if we can prove ourselves physically, mentally able to do a particular task, then we've earned the right, just like our male counterparts have.
NNAMDIHere is Cheryl in Washington, D.C. Cheryl, your turn.
CHERYLHi, Kojo. I am calling because my aunt was a veteran of World War II, Korea and Vietnam, who contributed to help build the memorials. She suffered pretty much most of the indignities that you've heard of women suffering in the military, and people assuming that they're not a veteran.
CHERYLShe now is buried in Arlington Cemetery and is suffering her eternal indignity, in my opinion. She was married to a serviceperson. She and her husband were both in the Army. He died first. She is no longer entitled to her separate grave. She had to be buried on top of him. And the final indignity is that her name had to go on the back of her gravestone, even though she outranked her husband.
NNAMDIWow. So, there are still changes that obviously need to be made. Thank you, Cheryl, for sharing that very touching story with us. Phyllis Wilson, this comes all at a significant time in women's history. We're in the centennial year of the 19th Amendment. How is the 19th Amendment especially significant to servicewomen?
WILSONWell, I would say, you know, World War I, which we joined in 1917, the war ended then, November 11th, 1918. And women continued to serve if they were still overseas into 1919 and even 1920. But one of the sticking points, the rationale behind why women were not afforded the opportunity to vote was that we were not doing our full citizen responsibilities, which included defending the nation. But we were legally precluded from doing that until the Navy and the Marine Corps actually allowed women to serve in World War I.
WILSONAnd as a result of that, ultimately, we'd like to believe, while it had been going on for decades -- the women's right to vote federally -- the tipping point was that women had, in fact, served with distinction. As a matter of fact, General Pershing, the, you know, overall supreme commander in Europe, credited 225 women that were called Hello Girls with curtailing the length of World War I by at least a year, based on their service.
WILSONSo, when President Wilson signed, ultimately, the 19th Amendment, the right to vote so, yes, 100 years ago this year was the first time -- but not all women, white women were afforded the opportunity to vote in the 1920 election. It wasn't until 1924 that women of color and indigenous women were given that opportunity. But it's been hurdles and fits and starts, but it means a lot to us that we now are seeing the groundswell. And hopefully everybody's registering to vote this year, as well.
NNAMDISusan Bahary, you're working with an organization called The National Service Animals Monument to create the first U.S. monument honoring service animals and their handlers. Tell us about that project.
BAHARYWell, I'm very excited about that, as well. That project is being run by a charity with the name The National Service Animals Monument. I'm the sculptor for it, and I had envisioned this dream that while other countries had war animal memorials, we didn't have one to all our war animals. We had it to our dogs, and we certainly didn't have one to all our service animals.
BAHARYAnd so, this will actually be the great place of education and inspiration, and, I think, evenly healing and celebration for all those wonderful animals who have served alongside handlers since the founding of our country. To include the military, law enforcement, search and rescue, assistance animals, guide dog pairs. And we are aiming to have Congress pass an act to designate it as a national monument through Congress.
BAHARYAnd I also brought the symbol of the purple poppy to the United States which represents the same, all our service animals. And so, the purple poppy movement was a beautiful one we can all join in, and I encourage everybody to learn more about both of these things.
NNAMDISusan Bahary is the sculptor of "The Pledge," the new monument honoring military women. Thank you so much for joining us.
NNAMDIPhyllis Wilson is the president of the Women in Military Service for America Memorial Foundation. She's also a retired army chief warrant officer. Phyllis Wilson, thank you for joining us.
WILSONWell, thank you. It's my honor.
NNAMDIThis segment on a new monument dedicated to women at Arlington National Cemetery was produced by Cydney Grannan. And our conversation about predatory loans burdening black homeowners in Prince George's County was produced by Ines Renique.
NNAMDIComing up tomorrow, finding a public restroom in D.C. can be tough, and the problem is a daily one for those experiencing homelessness. We'll look at who is addressing the issue and what a safe, clean public restroom might look like. Plus, the pandemic recession has left many unable to pay their rent. What will happen to them when eviction moratoriums end?
NNAMDITomorrow's show is part of our 2020 contribution to the D.C. Homeless Crisis Reporting Project, which we're undertaking in collaboration with other local newsrooms. That all starts tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening and stay safe. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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