Office of the Press Secretary
Thank you. Thank you. Thank you very much Secretary Perry and Assistant Secretary Peng, my friend C. Delores Tucker. I'm very pleased also to be here with General Vaught. Some of you many have noticed that Lee Perry and I and C. Delores who was just given one of the commemorative coins on behalf of the Women in Military Service for America Memorial Foundation would not have shown up with General Vaught unless we were wearing one of these.
And the other point to make is this is how we are funding the foundation. And when the presentation was made to Dr. Tucker, General Vaught leaned over and said, "She just bought that." So it is my earnest advice that any of you in the auditorium who have not yet purchased one of these coins for the foundation should do so if you expect to have any opportunity to see General Vaught in the near future.
I'm also very pleased to be here with General and Mrs. Shalikashvili and Secretary West and Secretary Dalton, Secretary Widnall and many of the others of you here at the Pentagon who have been so supportive of what we are attempting to do in recognizing and promoting the opportunities for women. It is a privilege and an honor for me to have learned that I am the first First Lady to have had the opportunity to speak hare at the Pentagon and it is a great privilege for me.
I enjoyed my tour when I was here about a year and a half ago. I have enjoyed very much the visits I have been able to make to many of our military personnel around the world as I traveled and my personal conversations and working relationships with many of you here.
It is especially important to recognize, as has already been alluded to by the previous speakers, that much of what has been accomplished on behalf of the integration of women and minorities in the military stands as not only a strong testament of the commitment of the military, but as an example of the rest of the country. I have long been impressed by the seriousness of purpose starting in the 1940's and moving forward that our leadership, both civilian and military, has given to making sure that all Americans, regardless of race, ethnicity, or gender, are given the chance to serve their country. So as we celebrate today Women's History Month, I think it is important particularly in today's atmosphere to point out that the military is far ahead of much of the rest of our country in making full use of the talents of our people. And I want to commend all of you in leadership positions for not only carrying that on but also moving that forward. We need your example and we are grateful for it.
I have become particularly interested in the women who have served and are serving in military service. Everyday at the White House I am privileged to be in the company of the young men and women who are there as military and social aides -- to watch them in action -- to learn something about their lives and their careers. I also have learned with General Vaught's tutoring as I walked through some of the exhibit prototypes for the foundation of the role that women have always played in serving our country. The military have shown that no matter what obstacles might be thrown in someone's way, women have the ability to defend our country and to blaze the way for women in the rest of our society.
I recently attended the salute to African-American Veterans. And any of you who were there know that probably the height of the evening was the introduction of the President by Lieutenant Colonel Charity Adams Early, the first African-American in the Women's Army Corps in WWII. Colonel Early commanded the only battalion of black women to serve in Europe in WWII, the 6888 Central Postal Directory Battalion. The group, based in England and France, broke all records for redistribution of mail to front line troops. And I'll never forget two things which she said. She kept all of us laughing and crying simultaneously about her reminiscing. She started by saying, "I greet you with great pride in having served my country. For the unity of purpose which created our successes and for the lasting friendships we hold dear today." And then she added, "It's taken a long time for us to be found and remembered as participants. There are still a few male veterans who don't seem to remember that women were in the service. I find this very difficult to believe," she added, "because three days after V-E day thousands of Marines, anxious to see women from home, regardless of race, were outside our corridors trying to get in the door." She also said memorably, and I think really summed up what we are really celebrating today, that that war was probably the opportunity for all of us realize what it meant for all of us to be defending democracy against the attacks of fascism.
What I remember most from her statements was the following, "We remember the small battlefields of WWII, such as the battle of the sexes, the battle of the races, and the common enemy that we all fought in spite of these battles, what matters most is that we won that war." That is what matters most now -- both abroad and at home, that as we forge a new unity of purpose for the mission America in the 21st century, we remain conscious of those small battles, but we continue to win them because of the larger struggles that we are engaged in. Thanks to women like Lieutenant Colonel Early and the pioneers both before and after her, women are getting the recognition they deserve for their dedication and devotion to this country in the big and small battles. Whether it is through Secretary Perry's recent decisions expanding the number of positions available to women or the 1993 repeal of the exclusion barring women from serving on Navy combat ships this nation is beginning to appreciate the historic and present day contributions of women who day after day establish standards of excellence and professionalism in our armed services.
Today 700,000 women work in military and civilian positions vital to our national security. You know what they are now doing as they fly fighter planes and combat helicopters and serving on ships. They are doing what is necessary to be done. And we have to continue to make opportunities available for women who choose to make those kinds of contributions.
Few Americans realize that women have participated in every conflict or crisis this nation has faced since the American revolution. Throughout this nation's early history women were routinely present with armies in battle. The Civil War saw women on both sides in an unprecedented scale. Not only cooking, sewing, foraging for supplies, and taking care of the wounded, but also serving as saboteurs, scouts, and couriers. One brave and determined woman, Dr. Mary Walker, the first American woman doctor, received the Medal of Honor.
In this century women have proven themselves time and time again. The contributions of women were vital in both WWI and WWII. Many were wounded, killed, and decorated in service to their country. I remember particularly the extraordinary celebrations that we participated in Europe this past summer. My husband and I had the honor of meeting so many of our veterans whose stories in and of themselves were ones that we could have listened to and wished we could have shared with all of America. It was my honor to meet Lieutenant June Wandry during the commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of the Battle of Anzio Nettuno in Italy. Battling not only the Nazis, but also hunger, exhaustion, weather, and malaria, Lieutenant Wandry soldiered on -- working steady 18 hour days caring for the sick, the wounded, and the dying -- from theaters in North Africa, Italy, Belgium and Luxembourg. Her compassion and commitment to the American soldiers dying and wounded everyday on behalf of their country, helped many of them to make it through their pain and fear. Some of you who were with us in England and France and Italy remember the reunions that took place as soldiers saw soldiers and nurses and others who had been part of their experience. As one soldier said to Lieutenant Wandry, "My husband died at the Anzio Beachhead and all this time I was angry. Now I met you and I know he didn't die alone.
Lieutenant Colonel Early in England and France, and Lieutenant June Wandry in the Italian theater, and thousands of women like them in Korea and Vietnam and the Persian Gulf risked their lives so that the next generation of Americans my generation, my daughter's generation, would not only have fifty years of peace but fifty years of expanded opportunity within our democracy. We see this commitment as we look around the world today. I remember during the Persian Gulf War so many women were involved that some took to calling it the "Mom's War." Thirty-five thousand women serving as pilots, mechanics, intelligence specialists, truck drivers, and ground crew chiefs, we thank all of those who served and are serving. But much still remains to be done. We continue to take care of our veterans, both men and women. This is a solemn commitment. This is a contract that preceded any contract that we owe to our veterans and we must make good on.
And we also can use occasions such as this not only to celebrate the women's whose names and faces may not be known to our history books, but whose voices and actions inspired others as well as those who are known and whose examples will live as they encourage others to follow their paths. But we are also, I hope, as we celebrate this women's history month, looking forward to a time when our society will not need to be reminded of the extensive and extraordinary accomplishments of women. I hope there will be a day, certainly I hope in my lifetime, when as we pass on the stories of accomplishment and heroism from teacher to student from parent to child we can tell those stories without saying how unusual because men and women together will be given the opportunities and credit for the achievement that they have earned.
We have always known that the scope of women's abilities reach far beyond what has been historically assigned to them. And it our job now during this month to raise awareness and remind fellow citizens of the many roles women play in society. Progress will not be measured just in the jobs women do, but in the full range of choices and opportunities they have before them to fulfill their own potential. We are, I hope, working to make it possible for men and women to make the choices that are right for them. And those choices for women should be able to include soldier or lawyer, businesswoman, teacher, homemaker, anything else that is right for them at that point in their life when they must make that decision.
The respect women deserve to have for the choices they make is really at bottom. The recognition that women are individuals too -- not to be stereotyped, not to be expected to assume certain roles because they are women's roles, but instead to be seen as the individuals that they are. Today and for the rest of this month, we will recognize women for their many contributions to this country. Not only those done by generals, but those done by mothers, sisters, daughters, all of us. But we will also look to the future when our daughters and granddaughters will have greater choices for opportunities for success, happiness, and fulfillment because of the choices that we have made today and because of the paths that are blazed of the women here in the Pentagon and throughout our country.
The women working in this Pentagon are pioneers. They have set standards of dedication and commitment that really do redound to the glory of this country. It is the greatest country in the history of the world. And it is because we have been willing to struggle with the challenges we set ourselves about how we fight as Lieutenant Colonel Early said, "the little battles as well as the big ones." I'm confident that with leadership like that which we have here in the military, we will continue to win at home and abroad the big battles and the little battles for human dignity, democracy and a better future for all of us. Thank you very much.