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Elaine Wilson - American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, March 18, 2010 - The nation depends upon women, both military and civilian, at all levels of the Defense Department, from the front lines in Iraq and Afghanistan to the upper echelons of military command, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said here today.
Gates traced the evolving role of women in the Defense Department, from the Revolutionary War through today, during remarks at the Pentagon's Women's History Month observance.
"For over 230 years, American women have served with distinction on the battlefield," he said, "even when they have had to do so in secret."
Gates cited the example of Deborah Sampson, who disguised herself as a man to enlist in the Revolutionary War and was wounded twice during battles with British forces. After the war, Sampson was given a $4 annual pension, he said, noting that "a dollar went further in those days."
In World War II, more than 300,000 women volunteered for service, and about 1,000 Women Airforce Service Pilots, known as WASPs, flew more than 60 million miles in nearly every type of aircraft and role, he said. These women, however, were denied benefits until 1977.
Earlier this month, WASPs were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal for their wartime service, a "belated recognition of the debt that we owe these and many other patriotic women," Gates said.
Moving to the present, Gates noted the importance of women to the nation's current conflicts.
"Since 9/11, women have served everywhere and are critical to our war effort," he said.
Gates described the heroism of Army Spc. Monica Lin Brown. In 2007, Brown was serving as a medic in Afghanistan's Paktia province when her convoy was ambushed by insurgents. She braved mortar and small-arms fire to aid soldiers wounded by a homemade bomb. Brown is credited with saving the lives of five soldiers, he said, and was awarded the Silver Star for her selfless actions.
Gates also noted the contributions of women at the highest levels of military command.
"They are quietly leading large, diverse institutions with honor, integrity and skill," he said. Gates said he had the privilege of promoting the U.S. military's first female four-star general, Army Gen. Ann E. Dunwoody, two years ago.
"General Dunwoody now leads the 66,000 men and women of Army Materiel Command, providing critical supplies and support to our military forces around the world," he said.
Gates praised the nation's civilian leaders as well. Michele Flournoy, the undersecretary of defense for policy, is the first woman with undersecretary rank in the Defense Department, he said, and Christine Fox is the first female director of the cost assessment and program evaluation office.
"All of these women, and many here in this audience, have volunteered to serve our nation during times of great peril both past and present," the secretary said. "Their example teaches us to persevere in the face of adversity and also to realize that all Americans willing to serve can make magnificent contributions."
Following the secretary's remarks, Air Force Lt. Col. Nicole M.E. Malachowski, the first female member of the Air Force Thunderbirds, expressed her admiration for her predecessors in military aviation. She credits WASPs as the inspiration for her own career.
"These World War II vanguards moved everybody forward, unknowingly shaping the environment that I would inherit and generations of other women military aviators," she said.
"Countless military women like me are part of this vanguard, advancing, changing and shaping our environment," she continued. "We are the greatest military in the world because we combine our unique gifts, women and men alike."
She thanked her predecessors for teaching modern military women the valuable lesson that "women can love their country too and that many of us choose to show it by wearing our nation's uniform."