Last week, just in time for Veterans Day, the Army unveiled the Lt. FAWMA statue at Fort Lee, Virginia. It’s the first statue commissioned and placed on a military base time that features a woman soldier.
The ten-foot monument, whose name comes from an acronym for the Friends of the Army Women’s Museum, commemorates all the women who have taken the oath and served in the US Army. The public honor that the statue represents is overdue, for too long women have been soldiering alongside men, taking the same risks but receiving little of the recognition for their sacrifices and contributions in the military.
While the statue is a tribute to all women soldiers, it was designed to commemorate those who served in our most recent wars, a significant step by the U.S. Army to recognize and honor the part women play in military operations. The figure is dressed in modern combat equipment and carries a loaded M4 rifle. It’s the standard gear for all soldiers, the combat load that we wore every time we went out on a mission overseas. It’s refreshing to finally see a public display showing the rifle and gear worn by a woman. A powerful tribute to the burden that women have carried in combat.
Though FAWMA is the first to be place on a military base, it’s not the first monument to women soldiers. In 1982, the city of New York placed a plaque in Fort Tryon Park honoring Margaret Corbin, who fought in the Battle of New York in 1776. She originally participated as a “Molly Pitcher,” following her soldier husband, a member of a cannon crew. When he fell, Margaret stepped into his position and ensured the cannon remained operational, providing suppressing fire against British commanded Hussians until she was wounded by grape shot. Corbin’s actions were recognized by the Continental Congress, who granted her a disability pension for combat injuries for the rest of her life. She is the only woman to have received such recognition and be rewarded for her service with the same benefits given to other veterans, prior to modern conflicts.
Women didn’t suddenly disappear from the ranks of the U.S. military after the Revolutionary War. Famously, during World War II, gender segregated military organizations, such as the Women Army Corps, and the WAVES, were formed so women could serve, but in highly restricted capacities, such as secretaries and nurses. The work of these women was integral to the functioning of the military and instrumental in “freeing a man to fight,” and their service should not be discounted. But these secondary roles allowed commanders and civilian overseers of the military to marginalize servicewomen and justify restricting their options for participating in the military. It wasn’t until the 1980s when policy changes required women to have basic combat training beyond initial marksmanship, that the true potential and value of women in uniform became apparent.
The simple truth is: the military cannot function without women, and it’s becoming more and more obvious, based on the battles we choose to fight and they forms they take—asymmetrical, protracted, non-linear battlefields—that the combat arms cannot function without women. The nation is beginning to recognize this truth.
On this Veterans Day, when you look to thank a veteran or service member, don’t overlook your co-worker or classmate because just because they’re women—they may have been there, like I was, up in the gunner’s turret patrolling the dusty roads of Iraq. When you’re thanking a woman veteran don’t narrow your expectations of her service, she may have been a gunner or an administrative clerk, but it was her willingness to dedicate her life to service that deserves to be honored.