Small Kentucky town honors women who have served in military

WEST LIBERTY — Too often women's service in the military is invisible. Not any more in Morgan County.

A monument to women in the military, a two-year project by the Morgan County Woman's Club, was dedicated Saturday during West Liberty's Veterans Day celebration.

The bronze statue of three service members — women of the past, present and future of the military — stands at the center of Tredway Memorial Park in West Liberty.

A woman with a 1940s haircut, skirt and clipboard represents the clerical jobs in the early days of women's full enlistment in the military. A kneeling woman in combat fatigues, sunglasses, helmet and carrying a rifle faces east. A commanding officer with regalia and ribbons salutes facing the American flag in the park.

They evoke the enormous sacrifices women make in military service, said Stephen Tirone, a Marine and the Morehead artist who created the sculpture.

"It's probably still considered a man's job," said Emily Elam, the woman's club veterans chair who led the effort to install the monument. But women have opportunities today in the military that they might not have in the civilian world because merit, not politics, determine advancement and job, she said.

"You join for a job, join for the benefits, join for the travel, and it gets in your blood," she said. Elam served four years as an electronics technician. Her daughter is now in the Air Force in Alaska.

Women are the fastest-growing population of veterans, said Pamela Luce, women veterans coordinator for the Kentucky Department of Veterans' Affairs. As the number of older male veterans shrinks, the number of younger female veterans is quickly doubling, she said.

"You can recognize men who have served in the military. They wear the little pins and the hats, or they still have their military haircuts," Luce said. But women don't broadcast their military service, and Luce is sometimes surprised to find out a woman she knows is a veteran. "They're mothers, they're teachers, they're in the business world."

The visibility of a monument to women's service "encourages women to speak proudly about their service."

Air Force Major Gen. Verna Fairchild, of Frankfort, said women struggle with "invisibility" in the service. In her 34-year service, she got used to being the only woman in a room and worked hard to be exceedingly qualified and not a "token female."

Fairchild retired in 2002 as Air National Guard assistant to the director for support readiness. She said she was the third woman ever to be awarded a second general's star. But still, she said, she regrets not having served in a war zone or combat.

"Something in your gut makes me wish I had been able to contribute in that way," she said.

She spoke Saturday at the dedication of the West Liberty monument, representing the Women In Military Service for America Memorial in Arlington, Va., to which she has contributed. Fairchild said the ceremony was encouraging and refreshing. The monument is one of few nationwide that singles out women in the military.

"Here's a group of women in small-town America, and they've taken such pride in establishing this monument," Fairchild said.

A state coal severance tax fund grant paid for part of the monument, Elam said. Local service organizations and businesses, such as the Kiwanis Club that operates the park and construction companies, donated land, materials and work. The club sold memorial bricks to raise money.

"The project is bringing military women out of the closet" to talk about their service, said club vice-president Mary Alice Oldfield. She said that on Saturday, she met local women she never knew were veterans, from World War II days through today. Club members said military officials have been astounded at the concentration of women veterans in Morgan County.

The Morehead women's club bought a brick for the West Liberty monument's base to honor its longtime member Terry Caudill.

Caudill joined the club in 1947, after her enlistment as a specialist in the Navy was finished, and she married a Morehead man and moved to Kentucky.

During World War II, she was a radio operator in Norfolk, Va., and learned code to encrypt and decrypt messages and orders to send to ships and submarines.

Caudill said one of her best memories is receiving a decoded message about Gen. Douglas MacArthur accepting Japanese surrender aboard the U.S.S. Missouri. She gathered some of her radio room friends, they went down to the shipyard, and boarded the Missouri to see where the treaty had been signed.

Caudill is quietly proud. She doesn't really want the publicity of a newspaper report about her service.

But she said that when she sees children waving flags at Veterans Day parades, she thinks she should make sure they know their country's history — including that of the women.

"Even though I didn't go out and fight on the front lines, I contributed."