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Will women’s military memorial stay open?

The memorial honoring military women at Arlington National Cemetery is running short of funds and may have trouble staying open.
Image: Lorraine Dieterle
World War II veteran Lorraine Dieterle, 84, of Fairfax, Va., poses in front of the Women's Military Memorial, behind her, at Arlington National Cemetery, in Arlington, Va. Carolyn Kaster / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Garage sales and quilt raffles helped a determined group of female World War II veterans raise money to transform a rundown wall at Arlington National Cemetery into a grand stone memorial to women who served their country. But those women are dying off, even as the memorial runs short of funds.

With women now involved more heavily in combat jobs, those early organizers hope a new generation will step up to the challenge of keeping the memorial open so military women's stories won't be lost.

The dedication of the memorial that today is visitors' first view of the cemetery was such a joyous event that 40,000 people attended in 1997. One of them was a 101-year-old World War I vet named Frieda Mae Hardin met with cheers when she told the crowd that women considering military careers should, "Go for it!"

Tough to raise private funds
Even as a steady flow of visitors enters its doors, the deaths of about three-quarters of the 400,000 women who served in World War II has left the memorial honoring military women of all eras without many of its loyal benefactors, though some still visit.

"Most of them are in wheelchairs and they are ill. All of their hair is white, and I look and I think, who knows how long we've got left. We just want to do our best while we're here," said Lorraine Dieterle, 84, a World War II veteran stationed in New York as a photographer for the Coast Guard who volunteers at the memorial.

The recession and a post-9/11 decline in bookstore sales inside the memorial have only made it harder to raise the private dollars that make up a large share of the memorial's $2.7 million annual budget.

Things looked so bleak last year that keeping the memorial open became an "iffy" proposition, said retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Wilma Vaught, 80, a Vietnam veteran and president of the board of directors of the Women In Military Service For America Memorial Foundation.

The memorial remained afloat thanks to a $1.6 million congressional appropriation and a special fundraising drive that's brought in $250,000. But paying bills remains a challenge, Vaught said.

"You're constantly wondering if you're going to get enough money to pay for the rent, pay for the electricity for the building, pay for the people that work," Vaught said in an interview near the entrance of the memorial, which features exhibits and rooms used for gatherings after funerals and support group meetings of families of the fallen. "It's always with you."

Looking for newest female service members
The fundraising problems come as U.S. service women serve in combat as convoy drivers and gunners. More than 230,000 women have served in Iraq and Afghanistan and more than 120 have died in the wars.

Memorial organizers hope the newest generation of female service members will step forward. They want more of them to donate as well as participate in memorial activities and enter their stories into the memorial's computerized registry, which includes the biographies of an estimated about 241,000 of the 2.5 million women who have served in the U.S. military.

"For some women, they have this idea this is something you do when you retire or it's something you do when you've done some accomplishment. That really isn't it," Vaught said. "The mere fact that you're serving is all that needs to be true."

The $22 million memorial took more than a decade to plan and construct. It was the brainchild of a group of female World War II veterans who felt the stories of the women who served in the war were too often left out of museums.

Dieterle recalled that she and other vets in Michigan held countless garage sales and sold doughnuts to raise money for it. Eventually, organizers were able to get the financial support of states across the country, foreign countries and corporations to help get it opened.

A day of ‘exultation’
She described the dedication day as one of "exultation."

"I think half of the people that were there were World War II veterans," said Dieterle, who now lives in Fairfax, Va. "We were so excited about having our memorial."

Alice Konze, 89, a retired Army major who was stationed in France and Germany during the war, said it's been forgotten how much men deeply resented the military women who served in the 1940s in positions such as nurses and pilots.

"We did do unusual things and there was a need for women to get in, we ... in the military and the women who went to work in the factories really led the women's revolution at that time," said Konze, of Oxon Hill, Md.

Memorial Day exhibit
On May 1, a temporary exhibit titled "When Janey Comes Marching Home: Portraits of Women Combat Veterans" featuring portraits and oral histories of female combat troops from the recent conflicts went on display. The memorial also plans a Memorial Day unveiling of the uniform, medals, and other items belonging to Cpl. Jessica Ellis, 24, an Army medic from Bend, Ore., who was killed in Iraq in 2008.

When women from the recent conflicts do enter the memorial's doors, organizers say they can't help but get caught up in the stories of the women who came before them and to feel a connection.

One of them on a recent day was Air Force Maj. Linda Stanley, 52, who served as a nurse in Balad, Iraq, and made the trip days before her retirement from the military. She said it's taken her a long time to mentally process the death and destruction she saw in Iraq to the point she was ready to enter the doors of a place like the memorial.

Once inside the memorial she said she was glad she had entered. She had found a safe place.

"Anyone who goes to combat is going to be affected," she said. "Man, woman, anybody."