By Brittni Larson (
September 3, 2014 3:54 p.m.

Wilma Vaught found her place in charge in the Air Force, eventually setting plenty of firsts for women.

Wilma Vaught found her place in charge in the Air Force, eventually setting plenty of firsts for women.

Wilma Vaught knew from a very young age that she liked to be in charge. But as a woman in the 1950s, even as a college graduate being in charge — of something other than the home — wasn’t something that was easily accomplished.

She’d ask about management positions or internships and be sent to the end of a different line to talk to a woman about being a secretary. That’s not what she wanted.

“When I graduated from college there weren’t that many opportunities for women in management, but I wanted to be in management, I wanted to be in charge of something, and most women were expected to be nurses, teachers, secretaries, married,” Vaught said. “That was not what I felt my calling was.”

She joined the corporate world and saw women with doctorate degrees, highly qualified, and sometimes surely better than their male peers, get skipped over and over again for management promotions. She knew she’d have to find a different way to lead others. That’s when Vaught learned that U.S. military branches were beginning to recruit women with college degrees to be officers — the managers.

It was 1957 when she joined the Air Force. At her first duty station she was the leader of more than 250 men and women.

After 28 years in the service Vaught retired as a brigadier general, for many years was one of the most highly decorated military women and for 22 years was the only woman to achieve general officer rank in the comptroller field. She was a trailblazer for women in the military. She was brave enough to be the only woman in the room on many occasions.

“I put myself out there, saying in essence, ‘You can make it, don’t give up,’” Vaught said.

“As a former member of the military, a woman, I can tell you that your opportunity to meet with senior women leaders back then, not that long ago actually, was very limited,” said Marilla Cushman, a retired lieutenant colonel.

“I run into people all the time who say they never served with another woman or they were on an installation and they were the only woman officer, so it was important to see that.”

On Sept. 13 at a Veteran’s Day event put on by Altamonte Springs’ One Senior Place, veterans and patriots can hear Vaught tell her story and a little history about women in the military. The event will host about 20 nonprofits there to offer information about their specialization in veterans’ services. There will be patriotic music from a bagpiper and bugler and the opportunity to celebrate many veterans, including several World War II men and women who will be guests.

“These World War II veterans are dying at alarming numbers; living history is dying, so it’s really important for us to connect with these people, have an event where they can come and realize that there is a high level of appreciation for what they’ve given us,” said Kathi Ridner, director of the Viera One Senior Place.

Ridner decided to get a woman keynote speaker because women’s vital role in military history is often forgotten.

“When everybody thinks of veterans there’s not as much focus on female veterans, and they’re just as important as male veterans,” said Fred Robinson, veteran community liaison for hospice provider VITAS and an event partner. “We’re all a part of this team, and we’re all defending this country … they need to be acknowledged and recognized.”

Vaught lived that. She had to fight to be noticed, but toe the line so as not to challenge the system too much. All the women did. They didn’t want the military deciding they didn’t need or want them there. She went into every new job knowing that the men and women were not interested in having a woman boss.

“To say that it wasn’t a challenge to be a woman in the military would be wrong, because it was a challenge to be a woman in the military because you had to be sure that you weren’t discriminated against, that you were competitive for the jobs that you were required to hold,” Vaught said.

And she was very successful at that. She’s met several U.S. presidents, traveled the world, inspired those who worked for her and pushed them to learn more and advance their careers — a reason most of them came to her to say they’d work for her any day after their initial skepticism — advised male leaders on women’s issues, and helped to create a military today where women can feel more equal to men than they ever have there before.


The One Senior Place Veteran’s Day event is on Saturday, Sept. 13, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at 715 Douglas Ave. in Altamonte Springs. For more information about One Senior Place or the event, call 407-949-6733.

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