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She Was One of the First Female Generals, but Her Legacy is in Telling Other Women’s Stories

Brigadier General Wilma L. Vaught has continued her work long after her retirement.

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  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In March, Wilma L. Vaught, Brigadier General, USAF (ret) turned 90. You can view a celebration of her life and legacy at the Women in Military Service for America Memorial that took place on March 14. 

Brig. Gen. Vaught is one of the most highly decorated military women in United States history. Not only did she pioneer history for women with her many accomplishments, but she was also instrumental in the funding, building and creation of the Women in Military Service for America Memorial, which tells the story of military women and keeps their stories as a record of history.

She joined the military in 1957, after graduating from the University of Illinois in 1952. Although she began working in civilian fields, Vaught saw very little chance of advancement. Having come across an Army recruiting letter that offered her an opportunity to work in a management position (officer), she started looking into joining the military. In her research, she was advised to see if the Air Force had a similar program—leading her down her ultimate path.

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Vaught always did the best at whatever job she assigned, and worked to take care of the Airmen below her. Throughout her career, men would find out that a woman was their next commander and try to get transferred. After a few months, people would come up to her and say, "When I heard you were coming, I wanted to be reassigned because I didn't want to work for a woman. But I just want to let you know I don't feel that way anymore, I would work for you anyplace."

When asked what the key to her success was, Vaught always talked about helping people. She was known for taking over commands that may have been meeting the mission, but teammates were not being taken care of properly.

She knew how important it was for people to be put in for awards and promotions and made it a point to ensure that happened while accomplishing broader goals. She also continually pushed those she worked with to get further education or take required courses for promotion. Story after story of people whose lives were impacted by Brig. Gen. Vaught involved her pushing them harder to be their best.

Related: The Women Who Volunteered to Make Doughnuts on the Front Lines of World War I 

Not only did those who worked for her want to follow her wherever she went, but her leadership also didn't want to go anywhere without her. In 1966, when her bomber unit was preparing to deploy, her wing commander asked her to deploy to Guam with bomb wing in support of the Vietnam War.

She was the only woman deployed with 3,000 men, and spent six months working for the wing commander as a management analyst. While she wasn't the first woman to deploy to Vietnam, she was still one of very few. Vaught was not even issued a weapon or given fatigues to wear. But that doesn't mean she didn't have a weapon hidden in her hotel room in case she needed it. In Vietnam, Vaught was assigned to the MACV headquarters.

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  • Wilma Vaught with Michelle Obama at the Women in Military Service for America Memorial.

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Thanks to the passing of two key acts (the Women's Armed Service Integration Act of 1948 and Public Law 90-130 of 1967), promotion and retirement restrictions that would have limited Vaught's career were lifted.

In 1982, she became the first woman to reach the rank of Brig. Gen. in the comptroller career field. The second woman to reach that rank as a comptroller would not be promoted for another 22 years. When Vaught retired in 1985, she was one of three female Generals in the Air Force and one of the seven female Generals in the U.S. Military.

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Brig. Gen. Vaught is a woman who changed the course of history for the women who followed behind her. With her can-do attitude, doors opened—and stayed open for the women who followed her. But one of her most lasting impacts is the Women in Military Service for America Memorial located at Arlington.

As president of the Women's Memorial Foundation board of directors, Vaught spearheaded the campaign that raised some $22 million dollars for the memorial that was opened in 1997. It stands today as a place of record where visitors can learn of the courage and bravery of tens of thousands of American women who have pioneered the future.