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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

All this week, we're looking at women and war. We heard yesterday about a sergeant, a young woman, who earned the Silver Star for valor in Iraq. Women serving in Iraq and Afghanistan can easily find themselves in the thick of the fight - something that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.

This morning we're going to get a sense of just how much things have changed. NPR's Rachel Martin has this profile or a retired Air Force general who began her career back when the military thought it more important to train her to use lipstick than to fire a weapon.

General WILMA VAUGHT (Retired, U.S. Air Force): I am retired Air Force Brigadier General Wilma L. Vaught.

RACHEL MARTIN: When Wilma Vaught joined the Air Force in 1957 and started her first day of training, she was unsure about a lot of things, even the basics.

Gen. VAUGHT: What I most remember was when I arrived at Lackland Air Force Base and I was trying to find the building I was supposed to go to and I saw somebody walking along in uniform - a woman - she saluted me and I didn't know what to do. I didn't know how to salute. It was a very embarrassing thing.

MARTIN: The one thing Vaught did know...

Gen. VAUGHT: I wanted to be in charge. I wanted to lead.

MARTIN: And she's been doing just that ever since.

Gen. VAUGHT: This is a picture that I've always liked.

MARTIN: I met General Vaught at the Women's Military Service Memorial in Arlington, Virginia. It's a museum with exhibits marking women's contributions to the U.S. military. There are all kinds of old photos, uniforms and quotations from service women etched into the ceiling, like this one from a World War II Army nurse.

Gen. VAUGHT: Let the generations know that women in uniform also guaranteed their freedom, that our resolve was just as great as the brave men who stood among us, that the tears fell just as hard for those we left behind us.

MARTIN: Vaught is the president of the foundation that runs the memorial. She's dressed in a dark suit, sensible shoes, her silver hair cropped short. She looks the part. When she spots two women looking at the exhibits, the retired general is quick to call out.

Gen. VAUGHT: Hi. Are you women veterans?

Unidentified Woman: Yes.

Gen. VAUGHT: Hey, glad you came.

MARTIN: The women move on to take in the exhibits.

Gen. VAUGHT: It's a place where we build the story of what women have done, what they've accomplished, what they went through to get there.

MARTIN: It's a story she and others in her generation helped write. Vaught joined the military right after the Korean War, about 10 years after President Harry Truman signed the Women's Armed Services Integration Act of 1948. That law opened the services up to women as permanent, regular members but with strict conditions.

If a woman got pregnant, she had to be discharged. Each service had to limit the number of women to two percent of their overall force. And women weren't allowed to serve in combat or command men.

Gen. VAUGHT: And when I came in the Air Force, I couldn't hope to be a general because the law said women couldn't be generals.

MARTIN: This was partly because of popular perception at the time, that women of a certain age might be, shall we say, compromised. Vaught explains...

Gen. VAUGHT: When the congressional committees that were putting together the legislation, the Armed Forces Integration Act, thought about the age that women would be when they would be considered for admiral or general, they would be going through menopause. And if they were, they might make irrational decisions.

MARTIN: As a result, women in the military could only be promoted so high. Still, there was recognition that if women were going to be in the service, they needed officers who could lead them.

It was the 1950s, a time when a woman was expected to have a husband and children. But Wilma Vaught wanted a career - in the military. Problem was, the military wasn't really sure how to be a co-ed force.

Gen. VAUGHT: This training was gender-segregated.

MARTIN: So it was an effort to get more women in the military.

Gen. VAUGHT: As officers. Had a shortage of women officers.

MARTIN: The women's officer training, though, was a little different than the men's.

Gen. VAUGHT: We had training on how to sit, how to put on makeup. We didn't have as aggressive physical training as the men did.

MARTIN: In your officer training, you were instructed on how to put on makeup?

Gen. VAUGHT: Oh, yes.

MARTIN: That's a little strange.

Gen. VAUGHT: Well, that's the way it was. All the services were doing this at that time. We had to learn how to be charming and attractive. That's the way it was.

MARTIN: And there were other frustrations. Vaught remembers that there were jobs on the flight line that women could actually do better than men because they had small hands that could get into small spaces. But, she says, if a woman got trained for one of those jobs and assigned there...

Gen. VAUGHT: What would they usually do with her? They would put her at a desk job inside to handle the work orders or something instead of sending her out on the flight line to do what she had been trained to do.

MARTIN: So that was in the late '50s, early '60s. A few years later, the Vietnam War changed things for women.

(Soundbite of video)

Unidentified Woman #2: The Vietnam War escalates into a years-long conflict, creating a permanent manpower emergency and mounting casualties.

MARTIN: Tens of thousands of men were drafted to the military. Thousands of women signed up voluntarily.

(Soundbite of video)

Unidentified Woman #2: Military policy keeps other service women out of the combat zone, until the need for support personnel grows so critical that the policy bends.

MARTIN: In 1967, the military lifted its cap on the number of women who could serve and decided that women could serve as general officers. Wilma Vaught was sent to Saigon.

Gen. VAUGHT: This was in 1968.

MARTIN: We're sitting in the exhibit hall at the Women's Military Memorial and she shows me a photo of herself back then, standing in front of the small office building where she worked.

Gen. VAUGHT: So they had put all these sandbags up in case they had to evacuate (unintelligible) in case the building was rocketed or something, which it never was.

MARTIN: What do you think when you look at that version of you?

Gen. VAUGHT: How slim I was then - that's what I think.

MARTIN: But she also thinks about how different her experience in Vietnam was compared to what women are doing today in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Gen. VAUGHT: I served in Vietnam for a year. But I served in downtown Saigon. I spent the whole year wearing a skirt. You don't see that today. They're in their battle dress uniforms.

MARTIN: The changes, though, aren't limited to how they dress. We should point out here that Wilma Vaught broke her fair share of glass ceilings. She was the first woman to deploy with an Air Force bomber wing. She was promoted to brigadier general in 1980, and when she retired five years later, she was only one of seven female generals or admirals in all the armed forces.

But in close to 30 years of military service, she never had to fire a gun. Not like today, where hundreds of thousands of women have served in wars with no clear front lines.

Gen. VAUGHT: And in fact, I look at it and I wonder if I if I were in the military today, would I be able to do these things?

MARTIN: What do you think?

Gen. VAUGHT: I would like to think I would, but I don't know because, you know, the challenges are just so great. It's a different military. It really is.

MARTIN: Maybe so, but it's a military now filled with women because Wilma Vaught wanted not just to serve but to lead.

Rachel Martin, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: And tomorrow we'll hear from a young woman about to embark on a military career who is inspired by the generations of women in the military who came before her, including her own mother.

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