WASPs Finally Honored With Congressional Gold MedalMarch 12, 2010
The story that was sealed for decades and ensnared in bureacracy for years more was unveiled nationally in a big way in Washington on Wednesday. The groundbreaking women who flew at home in World War II were awarded with a Congressional Gold Medal. While names like Pelosi, Reid, Boehner, and McConnell were in attendance, it was a group of women in their 80s and 90s who were the stars, finally given their due for their historic role training pilots during a time when women in the military was shockingly uncommon. Following their service, their records were sealed and they were not recognized as veterans. Fast forward decades later, as Deanie Parrish, one of the early WASP's, worked tirelessly with daughter Nancy to share the story of the original flygirls. Deanie interviewed and Nancy filmed and edited, and 19 states and hundreds of interviews later, they had a framework to share the story through the Wings Across America foundation they set up. But even with museum exhibits, a website, and documentaries, the story was still limited to a few. Four years ago, Deanie told Nancy that it was going to take something big to make the story tip.
Congressman Chet Edwards was in attendance at the yesterday's ceremony, which he said was the largest of its kind ever on Capitol Hill. The ceremony was made possible when Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison and Barbara Mikulski of Maryland spearheaded an effort that was eventually signed by President Obama last Fourth of July weekend. With plenty of time to get the word out, nearly 200 of the remaining WASP's, plus dozens of family members showed up to reminisce, re-acquaint, and introduce. Many attended who weren't even related to WASP's. One was Clay Wilkins, a Wacoan who served in the Air Force, being recognized for his work as a Pilot in Vietnam. As a child growing up in West Texas, he dreamed of being a fighter pilot. When he heard that pilots were being trained in nearby Sweetwater, he had to see for himself.
He told us his story from the shadows of the hills at Arlington National Cemetery, with his eight-year old grandson in tow. He wanted Luke to see the courage of a group of women that inspired him over 60 years ago. Clay befriended the Parrish's upon moving to Waco, and wanted to see Deanie recognized in person. But he and others got an added treat. They got to hear Deanie address the crowd.
Deanie Parrish delivering a speech is not a surprise to those who know the gregarious and tireless advocate for the WASP's, whose ability to tell a story and sense of leave an impression with many, including her Congressman.
But when she stepped on the stage, she was focused on business, moved by the opportunity to speak to, and on behalf of, her sisters.
In her speech, she put the onus on those with a mouthpiece-the media, authors, and historians--to tell the story that was missed when the original histories of World War II were written. Her daughter Nancy said they were overwhelmed by the coverage from national outlets, and hope this spurs people to become interested in the story while many of the women remain alive. And while many look ahead, it was hard for them not to feel a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction that a major hurdle had been cleared. For Clay Wilkins, it was a long road from peering through the fences at the WASP's to mingling with them on Capitol Hill.
Approximately 300 of the original 1100 WASP's are still alive. You can see many of their stories at Deanie and Nancy Parrish's Wings Across America website. You can find a link to their site and see a picture of a young Deanie Parrish at kwbu.org; you can also find previous stories about the WASP's in our news section. For KWBU news, I'm Derek Smith.