Oklahoma servicewomen remember past, celebrate future of women in U.S. military

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Kasey M. Phipps
  • 137th Special Operations Wing Public Affairs
In the strengthening sunlight of Oct. 21, 2017, nearly 40 Oklahoma Air and Army National Guard women gathered with hundreds of active-duty, retired and reserve service men and women from all branches of the military to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the dedication of a memorial in Washington D.C. — the Women in Military Service for America Memorial — to honor the women who came before them and celebrate the opportunities that are still to come.

The memorial, dedicated 20 years ago and serving as the only major national memorial honoring all women who have defended America throughout history, functioned as the site of a weekend filled with remembrance, honor, service, leadership, mentorship and inspiration among the revered monuments and historical sites of the Arlington area.

“It just makes you reflect back on how much has changed in these 20 years, and the sacrifices that women are still making,” said Col. Cynthia Tinkham, Oklahoma National Guard Director of Personnel, one of five attendees of the OKNG who were present at the dedication 20 years ago. “Also the pride and honor of what it is to serve.”

This lesser-known-to-many memorial serves as a 4.2-acre ceremonial entrance into Arlington National Cemetery as it strives to honor a very specific group of U.S. military service members – the nearly 3 million women who have served or are serving in or with the U.S. Armed Forces since the American Revolution.

The group arrived to the memorial Friday, Oct. 20, touring its long arching hall of memorabilia that covered a full-range of women in service, from the women who disguised themselves as men to serve their country to the ones who openly served and died in the latest campaigns against terrorism.

“I’ve learned a lot about women’s history and the impact it has on the Air Force and every other branch,” said Staff Sgt. Jaimie Haase, an Airman from the Oklahoma Air National Guard who has only been to Washington D.C. once before.

Major events throughout the weekend included a celebration dinner, the WIMSA 20th Anniversary ceremony, an honor walk and an after-dark service of remembrance. Attendees ranged from women WWII veterans to those currently serving in all branches of the U.S. Armed Forces.

During the morning ceremony, keynote speaker, retired U.S. Air Force Gen. Janet C. Wolfenbarger, Defense Advisory Committee on Women in Services chair, compared her experience at the dedication in 1997 to the 20th anniversary ceremony this year, emphasizing that each year there are more “firsts” to celebrate — the first woman to serve in a particular branch, in a particular career field and the first to die while serving.

“There are so many firsts that the memorial represents,” said Wolfenbarger. “But the real objective is that there are no more firsts.”

Brig. Gen. Thomas Ryan, Oklahoma Air National Guard Assistant Adjutant General, emphasized the importance of honoring the past later that evening as Oklahoma Guardsmen and the other attendees held candles honoring the lives of the 167 women who have fallen since the onset of the Global War on Terror.

“We can never forget our history and those who have perished for the sake of us all,” said Ryan, who was asked to speak at the event in honor of the women killed in action. “Sacrifice is meaningless without remembrance.”

Among those fallen was both the youngest and only woman in the Oklahoma National Guard to die in combat, 19-year-old Oklahoma Army National Guard Spc. Sarina Butcher who was killed in 2011 in Afghanistan and is honored within the memorial.

“These women represent a bridge to those that came before them,” said Tinkham who spoke on behalf of Oklahoma’s fallen women. “To those of the new and current generation and to those still to join, I implore you to keep telling their stories. Be proud of them. Honor them … and tell your own stories.”

As the candlelights of remembrance were turned off one-by-one and their glow disappeared from the now dark reflection pool, women from generations spread by nearly 100 years bent over a birthday cake with candles of celebration instead — candles that not only represent the last 20 years, but the future years to come.