Tuesday June 18, 2013 | June 2013 Issue
“All I ever wanted to be was in charge.”
And being in charge is what Wilma Vaught, Brigadier General USAF (Retired) has always been. Starting at the age of twelve when her parents left her alone for the weekend to run their one-hundred-twenty-five acre farm while they visited relatives, to being promoted to the rank of Brigadier General in the United States Air Force, to currently serving as the President of the Board of Directors of the Women In Military Service For America Memorial Foundation, Inc., Wilma is is charge!
Early in her childhood, Vaught displayed an independence and set of accomplishments unusual for a female. As a daughter of farmers, she preferred to be outside with her father; working with a team of horses, milking cows, driving a tractor, shucking corn, and bailing hay. She remembers with pride the day she successfully backed up a load of grain at the local grain elevator in front of a group of men just waiting for her to fail so they could assist her. Since most of her time was spent outside on farm chores, she states that she never developed any domestic skills and was the only female in her high school class to graduate without completing a single home economics course. This was an unusual feat for a female in the 1940’s. But neither she nor her parents saw her as blazing a trail for women, but merely doing what she was good at, unaware of the tasks being a man’s job or a woman’s job.
The assumption that she could succeed at whatever she chose to do is confirmed by her professional and military career. After graduating from the University of Illinois, she took a job at DuPont but saw little possibility there for managerial advancement. Taking advantage of a military program offering direct commissions she chose to join the Air Force and was commissioned a Second Lieutenant in 1957, long before the law was passed allowing women to attend military academies. She was the first female Air Force officer to attend the Industrial College of the Armed Forces, she served as Chairperson of the NATO Women in the Allied Forces Committee, was the senior woman military representative to the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services, and was promoted to the rank of Brigadier General in 1980. When she retired in 1985, she was one of only three female generals in the Air Force and one of seven female generals or admirals in United States Armed Forces.
Foundation President, Brig. Gen. Wilma L. Vaught, USAF(retired)-center-greets women veterans at the Women in Military Service Memorial dedication, Gateway to Arlington Cemetery, Oct. 18, 1977. Photo by SSgt. Renee L. Sitler, Joint Combat Camera Center, Pentagon
Being a female in a male dominated world, one would assume that Vaught had endured challenges and prejudices about her abilities and since she is a very petite woman, probably some sexual harassment as well. She states that even though on several occasions she was the only woman on base she experienced very little sexual harassment. Her only memory of being judged for being a woman involved a “thump test”. While serving as the chief of the Management Analysis Division for the 306th Bombardment Wing at McCoy Air Force Base in Florida, at a senior level briefing, she was the only one present who knew what the thump test was. Visiting the maintenance unit, she had learned men conducting the test had difficulty hearing the thump and were reading a gauge instead. This was not in accordance with the tech order. It was later proved to be the better way. The Major General of the unit thought it “a sorry state of affairs when it took a woman to explain the maintenance problem”. However, her value to the wing was recognized. The wing commander asked her to go with the B-52 wing when it deployed to Guam during the Vietnam War. She was the first female ever to deploy with a Strategic Air Command bomb wing in an operational deployment. She was one among 3,000 airmen.
One would also assume that as a high ranking military officer serving in national and international posts Vaught would have stories of meeting powerful influential people. However, the two people she wanted to talk about were enlisted men who had served in her commands. The first was a young Marine who had failed a drug test and appealed to her claiming he was clean and that there was a problem with the test—an error in the chain of custody. She secured approval of the appeal by the Marine Corps. She felt if he wasn’t clean he’d get caught again, but if he was, he deserved the chance to prove himself. She was right, the young Marine went on to retire from the Marine Corps with the rank of E-9, having served the Corps and his country very well. The other story was about a young Airman in Spain tasked with writing the unit Morning Report. The Morning Report is a tedious unexciting report describing the daily actions of the unit. He seemed uninspired about his assignment and the highlight of his off-duty time was reading comic books. Vaught relayed to him the importance that the Morning Report played in the recognition of Merrill’s Marauders during World War II, in which only a handful survived the battles in Burma. It was only through the daily Morning Report recording the on-site promotions of the individuals that later ranks and pay were determined. Evidently this spurred the young man to reconsider the significance of his job as he became an avid reader, and started attending college classes. He remained in the Air Force and has since retired with the rank of Chief Master Sergeant and a master’s degree. Both men attribute much of their military success to General Vaught’s intervention in their lives. For the General, these success stories speak to devotion to duty and the empowerment of education—two abiding principals throughout her military career and her life.
She has served for 25 years as President of the Board of Directors of the Women in Military Service For America Memorial Foundation. The Memorial is located at Arlington National Cemetery and is the only major national memorial honoring all women who have defended America throughout history. It also documents the experiences of these women and illustrates their partnership with men in defense of our nation and hopefully will serve as an inspiration for all. Personally, Vaught doesn’t talk about her success because it’s not her way, but for the Memorial she talks often and passionately about the history and contributions of women in the military and the sacrifices, many times with their lives, they made defending this country.
Although Vaught has compiled a long list of “first female” statistics during her career, she is most satisfied with the belief that she has been an encouragement to women–and men–to grow and succeed in whatever they choose, that she has worked hard to get people educated, and that she hopes she has set an example on how one is to treat others. Not a bad list of accomplishments for a girl who once drove a tractor and wagon to a grain elevator.