America honors generations of servicewomen Memorial: Veterans of a century of service gathered to dedicate the national monument to women in the U.S. military. It was a day filled with proud memories.

October 19, 1997|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- June Wandrey knew hers was the last face many of the boys overseas would ever see. A nurse in the first field hospital behind the lines during World War II, she was at the side of bloodied soldiers from battlefronts across Europe. When she could, she helped the dying men. When she couldn't, she simply stood next to them, reminding them of home.

"We're safe," Wandrey remembers the wounded soldiers telling her. "Just to talk to you -- just to hear your voice. We're safe."

Wandrey's extraordinary experience close to the front lines is shared by thousands of other servicewomen in this country. Yesterday, those women and many others who served in the military gathered for the opening of the Women in Military Service for America Memorial.

It is the first national monument commemorating the 1.8 million women who have served in the U.S. armed forces, and the product of more than a decade of planning.

The ceremony for the $21 million memorial spanned generations of people and thought -- from Frieda Hardin, 101, a World War I veteran who delighted in the chance to serve as a Navy clerk, to the first female space shuttle pilot, Lt. Col. Eileen Collins, who predicted that women astronauts would one day land on Mars.

Many of the women had spent their lives feeling vaguely anonymous -- an afterthought in the nation's military history. Yesterday, they said, they got the notice they had long craved.

"America knows what you do and what you have done," Vice President Al Gore told the crowd of more than 25,000. "Maybe it hasn't always been recognized in the past as it should have been, but today we say God bless you and thank you."

The ceremony gave equal notice to water bearers in the American Revolution and attack-helicopter pilots in the Persian Gulf war. Women received permanent status in the armed forces in 1948, but the memorial celebrates their contributions over more than two centuries.

Among the legends of that history: Deborah Sampson, who enlisted in the Continental Army in 1811, impersonated a man and tended her own wounds so her gender would not be uncovered; Clara Maas, a nurse in the Spanish-American War who died after volunteering to be bitten by a mosquito to help find a vaccine for yellow fever; Dr. Mary Edwards Walker, a Civil War physician who became the only woman to receive the Medal of Honor.

The centerpiece of the 4.2-acre memorial is a 30-foot-high granite retaining wall, a restoration of the 65-year-old wall at the entrance to Arlington National Cemetery. Nearby are a fountain, reflecting pool and display of 11 glass tablets that are illuminated at night.

Also at the site are a 35,000-square-foot education center, a 196-seat theater and a computerized registry with biographies and photographs of women who served in the military.

For World War II nurse Wandrey, 77, the day offered a chance to remember. When she entered the Army Nurses Corps in 1942, she was 22 years old, alone and scared. On the trip to North Africa, she was so seasick she vomited blood. She experienced her first death on that voyage -- a young soldier with meningitis -- and stood witness to his burial at sea.

At the front, cans of food were dated 1917. Constantly hungry, Wandrey said she ate anything she could find in the wild that "wasn't fuzzy." She saw so much carnage, she walked outside the medical tents and cried to herself every night. She is haunted by memories of Dachau, the German concentration camp where she assisted prisoners after the liberation.

Growing up in Wautoma, Wis., Wandrey never planned a life in the military, but she did not doubt it was her fate when war broke out. Six days after the attack on Pearl Harbor that propelled the United States into World War II, she graduated from nursing school and joined the corps, never bothering to ask her parents' permission.

"They attacked my country," she said simply. "Why wouldn't I go to war?"

The ceremonies included a color guard, a ribbon-cutting and a military fly-over by women pilots. A highlight of the speeches was a short address by Hardin, a former Navy yeoman who worked in the freight office in Norfolk, Va., in World War I.

Hardin was present at a memorial planning meeting five years ago and vowed to be at the celebration yesterday. "To those young women who may be thinking of a career in the military service, I say, 'Go for it!' " Hardin told the crowd.

Among those heeding Hardin's advice was 17-year-old Tawonda Reaves, a Baltimore native who joined more than two dozen teen-agers in taking an oath of service for the Army yesterday.

"It felt so big before, like it was out of my reach, but now I feel like I'm on my way," said Reaves, who is joining the Army in part to get financial aid for college.

"It was just me and my mother's decision. I know she wants me to go to college, and she's real proud."

Rounding out the crowd were women spanning a century of U.S. military engagement.

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