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On July 7th, U.S. Air Force Brigadier General Wilma Vaught was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. “Wilma’s one of the most decorated women to ever serve in the United States Military,” said Biden. “She enlisted in the 1950’s because she wanted to be a leader. She did that and more, becoming the first woman in almost every leadership role she held.”
Wilma was born March 15th 1930 in Pontiac, Illinois. Vaught grew up in Scotland, Illinois and was the oldest of two daughters in a farming family. Being in a farming family, Wilma worked hard, dreaming of having a job that would allow her to be in charge.
After high school, Vaught attended the University of Illinois in 1952 with a Bachelor of Science Degree. After finding a job in the corporate sector, Wilma began to realize that at the time, there was no possibility of any real managerial advancement for a woman.
Vaught’s life changed after reading a recruiting appeal for the U.S. Army that promised to give all recruits the opportunity to become a manager and supervisor. She made the decision to join the Air Force.
In an interview with Good Housekeeping, Vaught was quoted as saying “I’d always wanted a job that would let me be in charge, so as soon as I found out that I could earn a direct commission as Second Lieutenant, I chose to join.”
Joining the military as a woman in the 50’s did come with some bumps in the road. At the time, strong restrictions were placed on the number of women who could be in the military and the capacity in which they could serve. A number of these policies were changed in the sixties due to an increased need for human resources that was caused by the Vietnam War. When she was deployed, Vaught became an officer.
In January 1957, Vaught was commissioned a Second Lieutenant after she completed Officer Training School at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. Wilma would spend three months as a student at the Statistical Officers’ Course at Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas.
In September 1957, Vaught was assigned to the 805th Air Base Group, Barksdale Air Force Base, as Chief of the Date Services Branch and as an additional duty, commanded the Women in the Air Force Squadron Section.
Wilma also served at Zaragoza Air Base in Spain as Chief of the Management Analysis Division, 3974th Combat Support Group from April 1959 to April 1963.
After returning back to the states, Vaught was assigned to the 306th Combat Support Group at McCoy Air Force Base in Florida as Chief of the Date Services Division. Later, she would become Chief of the Management Analysis Division for the 306th Bombardment Wing (Heavy) at McCoy.
It was during this time, Vaught became the first woman to deploy with a Strategic Air Command operational unit when she served a temporary duty tour as Executive Officer and Chief of the Management Analysis Division, 4133rd Provisional Bombardment Wing at Anderson Air Force Base in Guam, during Operation Arc Light.
Wilma studied Business Administration at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa from June 1967 to September 1968, earning a Masters Degree. The following year, she served as a Management Analyst in the office of the Deputy Chief of Staff, Comptroller and Military Assistance Command in Saigon, Vietnam.
While in Saigon, rocket strikes hit less than two blocks from her quarters. When speaking about the attacks, Wilma said “I’d gone over with the idea that I wouldn’t come back alive and I accepted it.”
As she worked near the front lines, the limitations, antagonism and doubts about her abilities were her own personal war zone that she dealt with. Even though women’s positions in the military had improved, there was still quite a ways to go.
“Women are already in combat, so when people argue about whether they should be permitted to carry weapons, they’re really asked whether the military should let women be fired at but not be able to fire back,” Vaught said in an interview.
In 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law a measure that women be promoted to the level of Generals and Admirals. The new law removed the quotas that had previously been placed on the women to limit the number of servicewomen who could reach other ranks. This created a new range of career opportunities in the military.
After her completion of her Southeast Air Tour of Duty in November 1969, Vaught was assigned to Headquarters Air Force Logistics Command, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio as Chief of the Advanced Logistics Systems Plans and Management Group. This is where she would remain until June 1972. In August of that year, Vaught began attending the Industrial College of the Armed Forces.
From July 1973 to November 1977, Wilma was assigned to the Directorate of Management Analysis, Office of the Comptroller, Headquarters U.S. Air Force, Washington, D.C. She was Chief of the Cost Factors Branch and later became Chief of the Security Assistance Division.
Her next assignment was to Air Force Systems Command Headquarters as Director of Programs and Budget in the Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff, Comptroller. In March of 1980, Vaught became the command’s Deputy Chief of Staff, Comptroller. In September of that year, she was promoted to Brigadier General with date rank September 6, 1980.
Wilma was the first woman selected for promotion to Brigadier General in the Comptroller career field. She assumed command of the U.S. Military Entrance Processing Command in June 1982.
Vaught would go on to serve as the Senior Military Representative to the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services and was Chairperson of the Committee of Women in the NATO Armed Forces.
In 1983, General Vaught was given the Illini Achievement Award by the University of Illinois. This award is given annually to recognize the accomplishments of distinguished graduates. She also served as President of the Board of Directors of the Pentagon Federal Credit Union from April 1976 to July 1982. She is the only woman in its history to hold the position.
Wilma retired in 1985, one of just three female generals in the U.S. Air Force and one of seven female generals in the U.S. Armed Forces. Her military decorations and awards include the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, Air Force Distinguished Service Medal, Legion of Merit, Bronze Star Medal, Meritorious Service Medal, Joint Service Commendation Medal, Air Force Commendation Medal with oak leaf cluster, Air Force Outstanding Unit Award with oak leaf cluster, National Defense Service Medal, Vietnam Service Medal with four service stars, Armed Forces Reserve Medal, Small Arms Expert Marksmanship Ribbon, Republic of Vietnam Gallantry Cross with palm and Vietnam Campaign Medal.
Vaught’s distinctive Achievements include one of the most decorated military women in U.S. History at the time of her retirement; Recipient of the Woman Who Made A Difference Award (International Women’s Forum-October 1985); First and for some twenty-two years, the only woman promoted to brigadier general from the Comptroller career field; First woman to head a board of directors of a major credit union; first woman to command a unit receiving the Joint Meritorious Unit Award, the highest peacetime unit award (July 1985).
Vaught was also the first woman to deploy with a Strategic Air Command bombardment wing on an operational deployment (1966-1967); Listed in Who’s Who in America; 1998 Living Legacy Patriot Award (Women’s International Center); 1998 Medal of Honor (National Society- Daughters of the American Revolution); 1998 Veteran Advocate of the Year (National Association of State Directors of Veterans Affairs); 1998 Women of Distinction Award (National Association of Women in Education); 1998 VFW James E. Van Zant Citizenship Award; 2000 Air Force Women Officer Associated (Pioneer Award); 2000 Margaret Cochran Corbin Award (National Society-Daughters of the American Revolution); 2000 National Women’s Hall of Fame Inductee; 2003 National Women’s History Project, National Women’s History Month Honoree; 2003 Legion of Honor Bronze Medallion Award (The Chapel of Four Chaplains); 2006 National Organization for Women (NOW) Award; 2007 U.S. Air Force Woman of Distinction Merit Award; 2008 General Federation of Women’s Club- Women’s History Month Honoree; 2010 US Army Women’s Foundation Hall of Fame Inductee; 2012 USAF Brigadier General Wilma Vaught Visionary Leadership Award; 2012 Sea Services Leadership Association North Star Lifetime Achievement Award; 2013 White House Champion of Change Honoree and President General’s Medallion Award (National Society-Daughters of the American Revolution).
In 2015, Vaught started the Brigadier General Wilma L. Vaught Military Women Service Scholarship, established by the National Graduate School.
After her retirement, Vaught became the President of the Women’s Memorial Foundation Board of Directors. In this position, she began working on her new project: the establishment of a memorial to honor women in U.S. Military service.
At the time, Vaught had many who doubted that she would be able to raise enough money for the project. Ann Darr, U.S. News and World Report stated “General Vaught is a determined woman and she vowed to put the memorial in place in time for the remaining World War II Veterans to be alive to see it.”
The foundation raised an unbelievable $20 million for the memorial that is designed and built largely by women. A notable feature the memorial has is a computer database that includes names, photographs, biographical information and career histories and awards of women veterans.
“Most people don’t have any idea how many women served in the military,” Vaught said. “Many women have not understood the importance of what they did in the military service until they see something that makes them realize that what they did was really significant.”
In addition to creating the memorial, the foundation also created the Margaret Chase Smith Leadership Award, which is given each year to women who open opportunities for women in the American military. The award was created in honor of Margaret Chase Smith, a Senator from Maine who introduced legislation that allowed women to participate equally with men in military service.
On October 16, 1997, the Women in Military Service for America Memorial, which now stands at the main gate to the Arlington National Cemetery, was dedicated; the ceremony was attended by generations of women veterans and their supporters. A reporter for the U.S. Army’s Voice online wrote, “The Women’s Memorial stands as a place where the American people and visitors from around the world can learn of the courage and bravery of tens of thousands of women who, like Wilma Vaught, have pioneered the future.”