First lady Michelle Obama wants women veterans to talk about themselves more.
“(Your stories) are so worth telling, and our girls, our granddaughters need to hear them,” she told a packed Statuary Hall during a Women’s History Month event at the Capitol on Wednesday. “If you are a woman veteran, if you have worn the uniform and served bravely, I want to ask you to stand tall.”
The comments came as both an admonition and admiration for the roughly 3 million women veterans in America today, one of the fastest growing segments of the military population. Speakers at the event called their experiences inspiring but too often unheralded, or simply dismissed as common knowledge.
Congressional leaders and veterans advocates attended the event to honor retired Brig. Gen. Wilma Vaught, one of the first women to serve as a general officer in the military and a driving force behind the Women's Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery.
Vaught recounted for the crowd her own triumphs and struggles, relating stories of reluctance to let women serve in peacetime, then reluctance to let them deploy to Vietnam, then to let them rise through the ranks.
“We have come a long way,” she said to loud applause.
But she also emphasized the importance of remembering those challenges, especially in light of the ongoing issues facing women in the ranks.
Her comments came as the military is working to open all combat jobs to women for the first time, an issue that has met resistance despite the battlefield fights faced by female service members in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last decade.
Obama referenced not only those active-duty issues but also lingering problems for women after they leave the military, including the reluctance to seek out help because of outdated stereotypes and biases of who qualifies as a veteran.
“Many women veterans don’t self-identify,” she said. “Too many miss out on the benefits that come with serving this country.”
The first lady and Jill Biden, wife of the vice president, have pushed larger awareness of those issues and military families’ challenges through the White House’s Joining Forces campaign. But Obama said while spreading that message through high-profile channels can help, sharing personal stories of service can be even more effective.
“Once they hear about your service and sacrifice, they will slowly start to get what we know: that you are amazing, you are a gift to us,” she said. “Tell people what you have done to protect us and keep us safe.”
Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.