America's only memorial to military women needs your help

(Military Times) -- The nation’s only memorial for women in the military needs your help to keep serving the women it honors.

Almost 20 years after it opened, the Women in Military Service for America Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia is experiencing some financial struggles, and a grassroots effort to raise $20 million is underway to keep the site open for decades to come.

Commonly referred to as the Women’s Memorial, it’s one of the first sights visitors see as they drive down Memorial Avenue toward the entrance of the cemetery. It’s also a place where women who served can register their name and experiences for posterity.

Retired Army Maj. Gen. Dee McWilliams, president of the Women in Military Service for America Memorial Foundation, said around 300,000 women have registered.

“Not every woman who was ever in the service will get a book written about them,” she said. “This is a way to ensure they have a little piece of history about them.” 

As one of the few places in the world solely dedicated to women in uniform, it’s an important site to maintain. But the cost is hefty.

McWilliams, who served in the Army for 29 years, said it takes approximately $2.5 million a year to keep the memorial running.

With a roof made of glass and the inside granite and marble, McWilliams said it’s difficult to heat in the winter and to cool in the summer.

“Utilities alone are about $10,000 a month,” she said.

McWilliams’ salary is $1 a year, so the bulk of the cost comes from utilities and the off-site administrative offices and collections.

The foundation houses artifacts that date back to World War I, she said.

The memorial used to receive money from Congress, but that ended in 2010, and now 74 percent of the site’s funding is from personal donations. McWilliams said the rest comes from corporations, veterans services organizations and military service organizations.

“Nine months ago, we might be saying we might not be staying open till Christmas,” she said. “It’s not as bad as it used to be, but we’re not healthy.”

Raising $20 million

Through a partnership with the Academy of Women MilitaryWomen eMentor Community, a fundraiser has begun to make the memorial’s finances healthy again.

The fundraiser’s goal is to raise $20 million — and they're calling on each of the roughly 2 million living women veterans to  $20.

The fundraiser kicked off earlier this month, and there have been more than 400 donations totaling over $46,000 so far.

McWilliams said 10 percent of the donations will go to the Academy of Women, which mentors both officers and enlisted women in the military and helps with their professional development.   

 Erica Hartless, director of the eMentor Leadership Program, said the memorial is the physical home for military women.

“We are hesitant sometimes to publicly acknowledge our service,” said Hartless, who deployed twice during her seven years in the Army.

She has heard many stories of the children of women veterans who didn’t know their mother served until after she died because she never spoke about it, Hartless said.

“This big, beautiful building at the gates of Arlington publicly acknowledges women’s services and hopefully encourages those who may be shy about their service,” she said.

About 71 percent of contributors to the fundraiser are in the military or are veterans  — both men and women. The remaining 29 percent of donations come from civilians.

The fundraiser’s target end date is Dec. 31, but Hartless said they will keep it going if it continues to gain traction. 

'Hanging in there'

McWilliams said the memorial foundation has had to make several draconian decisions to cut expenses, including laying off half of the staff in the off-site administrative offices and reducing the physical footprint of those offices from 15,000 square feet to 10,000.

“By reducing payroll and rent, we save more than half a million dollars a year,” she said. “But that’s not money you can spend. That’s money you don’t have to spend.”

The systems and appliances in the memorial are all 20 years old, and a failure of one or more of them would cause an emergency situation when it comes to money.

“We’re just kind of hanging in there,” McWilliams said. “You have to plan for emergencies and things like that.”

But McWilliams is also sleeping better than she was earlier in the year.

“The sky is not falling,” she said. “Maybe the cloud drooped a bit.”

There were times when McWilliams didn’t know if they’d be able to make payroll and pay the rent, but the memorial’s debt has now been reduced by 30 percent.

She said she has received emails from various people who want to help keep the memorial afloat.

“We’re on the upswing,” she said. “Everybody’s been working hard to make sure that happens. A group of people came together to make a difference.”

Retired Lt. Col. Marilla Cushman, director of public relations for the Women’s Memorial, said the site means so much to the women who served.

“When you think how 74 percent of our revenue comes from the very women and those families it represents, that’s quite an endorsement of what this means to military women,” she said.

To donate to the Women's Memorial, visit  fundrazr.com/savethewomensmemorial.  

Charlsy Panzino covers the Guard and Reserve, training, technology, operations and features for Army Times and Air Force Times. Email her at cpanzino@militarytimes.com .    


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