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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, May 16, 2010

Women race to save war memorial

 •  Terrain's a tough foe, too

Associated Press

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Lorraine Dieterle, 84, served in World War II as a photographer for the U.S. Coast Guard. She volunteers at a memorial at Arlington National Cemetery for women service members, which is struggling to stay afloat.

CAROLYN KASTER | Associated Press

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ARLINGTON, Virginia Garage sales and quilt raffles helped a determined group of female World War II veterans raise money to transform a run-down wall at Arlington National Cemetery into a grand stone memorial to women who had served their country in its 20th century wars. As those women now are dying off, their memorial is running short of money to maintain it.

With women now involved more heavily in combat jobs, those early organizers hope a new generation will step up to the challenge of keeping the memorial open so military women's stories will not be lost.

The dedication of the memorial that today is a visitor's first view of the cemetery was such a joyous event that 40,000 people attended in 1997. One of them was a 101-year-old World War I vet named Frieda Mae Hardin, who was met with cheers when she told the crowd that women considering military careers should "Go for it!"

Even as a steady flow of visitors enters its doors, the deaths of about three-quarters of the 400,000 women who served in World War II has left the memorial honoring military women of all eras without many of its loyal benefactors, although some still visit.

"Most of them are in wheelchairs, and they are ill. All of their hair is white, and I look and I think, who knows how long we've got left. We just want to do our best while we're here," said Lorraine Dieterle, 84, who during World War II was stationed in New York as a photographer for the U.S. Coast Guard. She now volunteers at the memorial.

The recession and a post-Sept. 11 decline in bookstore sales inside the memorial have made it harder to raise the private dollars that comprise a large share of the memorial's $2.7 million annual budget.

Things looked so bleak last year that keeping the memorial open became an "iffy" proposition, said retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Wilma Vaught, 80, a Vietnam veteran and president of the board of directors of the Women In Military Service For America Memorial Foundation.

The memorial remained afloat thanks to a $1.6 million congressional appropriation and a special fundraising drive that has brought in $250,000. Still, paying bills remains a challenge, Vaught said.

"You're constantly wondering if you're going to get enough money to pay for the rent, pay for the electricity for the building, pay for the people that work," Vaught said near the entrance of the memorial, which features exhibits and rooms used for gatherings after funerals and support group meetings for families. "It's always with you."

The fundraising problems come as U.S. servicewomen serve in combat as convoy drivers and gunners. More than 230,000 women have served in Iraq and Afghanistan and more than 120 have died.

Memorial organizers hope the newest generation will step forward by donating and by entering their stories into the memorial's computerized registry.