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Okaloosa to unveil its long-awaited Women Veterans Memorial

Okaloosa Women Veterans Memorial.jpeg
Okaloosa County
A progress shot at the site of the Women Veterans Memorial

Thursday afternoon, Okaloosa County will unveil its Women Veterans Memorial, a walking trail featuring eight statues representing female veterans who have made an impact in U.S. history from the Revolutionary War to the War in Afghanistan.

It’s a project that was three years in the making, says Carolyn Ketchel, chairman of the Okaloosa Board of County Commissioners.

“There are only two or three other little monuments to women in the U.S.,” said Ketchel, who also served on the memorial’s advisory committee. “There are over 5,000 statues dedicated to men (throughout the country). And only over 300 are dedicated to women.”

The memorial has a two-fold purpose: a conservation effort and a memorial to female service members. The 17.5-acre space on Okaloosa Island will feature a living shoreline to protect 2,200 linear feet of shoreline. A variety of wildlife is present in the area, including 240 species of birds identified by the Audubon Society.

“The property had already been broken up into other county purposes and I really wanted to save these 17.5 acres,” said Ketchel.

Funding for the statues came entirely from the Okaloosa County Tourism Development Department. The living shoreline was funded through a RESTORE grant, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and matching funds from TDD.

Sculptor Jon Hair was commissioned to create the eight statues honoring each of the women.

A committee of five women spent two years researching female veterans to find a mix of names that have been missing from history books. There’s Margaret Corbin, who served in the Revolutionary War after alongside her husband, John, loading and firing cannons; there’s Cathay Williams, a Black woman who dressed as a man to serve as a Union soldier in the Civil War; and in modern-day service, there’s Naseema, a master sergeant in the Air Force who was deployed after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks as an aircrew linguist. These are just a few of the stories that are shared in the memorial.

Cathay Williams.jpeg
Cathay Williams is the only documented African American woman who served as a soldier in the U.S. Army. She is one of eight female veterans honored in the Women Veterans Memorial.

Charlotte Eschman is one of the committee members for the memorial. She also is a retired senior airman who served from 1973 to 1976. She says she’s pleased to see how things have progressed since her time in aircraft technical school when she was one of three females out of 13.

“Men were not ready for women, especially on the flight line,” she said. “It was an adjustment. It’s different to hear my son, who is a commander, talk about the women he serves with. It’s a blessing.”

Each of the women selected for the memorial had a touching story, said Eschman. But the one that perhaps stuck with her most was Sharon Ann Lane, who was the only American nurse killed by direct enemy fire in the Vietnam War.

“She saved 17 of her patients,” she said. “There’s a lot that’s not written in history books. We’re only starting to hear about the impact women had.”

As the Florida State Society Daughters of the American Revolution State Historian, Ketchel indulged in the research aspect of the memorial.

“This is part of our heritage,” she said. “With so many statues coming down, these are ones America will be proud of.”

An indoor ceremony will take place at 2 p.m. Thursday at Destin-Fort Walton Beach Convention Center on Okaloosa Island at 1250 Miracle Strip Parkway. Naseema and family members of the honored women will be in attendance.

Also, open this week is the opening of the Museum for Women Veterans which held a grand opening ceremony on Wednesday in Pensacola.

Eschman said she hopes visitors — men and women — who visit the memorial take the time to read the stories of each woman.

She’s only gotten a few peeks of the memorial herself. After years of planning, it will be overwhelming to see it unveiled.

“I’ll probably cry,” she said.