BLOOMINGTON — Retired Army Lt. Col. Jill Henry says, “I learned in the Army: never volunteer,” but that didn't stop her from becoming an ambassador for the Women in Military Service for America Memorial.
The memorial, located in Arlington National Cemetery, will mark its 20th anniversary this fall and Henry is on a mission. She wants to increase awareness of the memorial and get more female veterans to register and tell their stories.
“They call it a living memorial,” said Henry, of Bloomington, who was an Army nurse and nurse anesthetist for 20 years. “It's for veterans like me, those who are serving and women of the future.” She recently became the first female member of the American Legion Honor Guard.
Referred to simply as The Women's Memorial, it is both a memorial and a museum containing displays, artifacts, memorabilia and information on women who have served.
The memorial, operated by the Women in Military Service for America Memorial Foundation, contains the records of about 265,000 women who have served and registered, said retired Army Lt. Col. Marilla Cushman, director of public relations and development for the memorial.
“That's substantial,” she said, but then reminds you to “consider 3 million women have served over time.”
The mission for which Henry volunteered is to get more women to register and share their stories. Women can register at www.womensmemorial.org, by picking up a registration form and mailing it in or by calling 703-533-1155. You can also email Henry at email@example.com for help.
Henry's story is one of those recorded at the memorial.
She became a nurse through the Walter Reed Army Institute of Nursing at a time when nurses were being recruited for the Vietnam War. By the time she graduated, the war was over, but she stayed in “for 20 years and 14 days,” eventually becoming a nurse anesthetist.
She was deployed during Operation Desert Storm with the 15th Evacuation Hospital, 44th Medical Brigade. She spent six months in Saudi Arabia “in the middle of nowhere” about six miles south of the Iraq border.
“If we don't keep our own history and tell our own history, no one will — or someone else will do it, but it won't be accurate,” Henry said.
In addition to the stories of the women who have registered, the memorial includes “a world class collection of artifacts and memorabilia from the women and about the women who served,” said Cushman.
They include wedding dresses made from parachutes in World War II, rare documents and photos, women's uniforms from World War I to the present, medical kits and even government-issue panties.
Cushman finds all the items quite moving, but particularly “seeing the images of women serving today,” many of whom “are the age of my son, who's deployed three times.”
“We have a wonderful exhibit called, 'War Knows No Gender,'” said Cushman.
Among the stories told there is that of Army Cpl. Jessica Ellis of Oregon, a 24-year-old combat medic who was killed by an improvised explosive device in Iraq on Mother's Day in 2008.
Then there is Nancy Lacore, a Navy captain who “was so taken by the stories” she saw at the memorial that she decided to run one mile for each of the — at that time — 160 women who had died in Iraq and Afghanistan since 9/11, recalled Cushman.
She ran from Norfolk, Va., to the Women's Memorial. In the final half mile, she was joined by 161 people, each carrying a photo of one of the 161 women who had died at that point, to pay tribute to them in what was called the Valor Run, said Cushman.
Work on the memorial project began in 1986 with legislation signed by Ronald Reagan. The memorial was dedicated Oct. 18, 1997. Since then, it has had about 2 million visitors, according to Cushman.
“It's the only memorial for all women of all services who have served our country,” said Henry.
Many of those behind the push were World War II veterans.
“A whole generation of women got this started, but they're almost gone,” said Henry. “Unless we do this as women, it's not going to happen.”