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New monument a salute to women veterans

Edward Santa Cruz with the Eagle Claw Warrior Society blesses the monument to women veterans during a dedication ceremony Saturday in Las Cruces. (Angela Kocherga/Albuquerque Journal)

LAS CRUCES – Hundreds gathered for the dedication of a monument to women veterans who have served in the U.S. Armed Forces.

“I’ve been wanting one for a long time. Today is special day,” said Capt. Betty Somppie. She’s 102 years old and served during World War II as an original member of the 1st Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps.

She was a special guest at the dedication for the Women Veterans Memorial at Saturday’s ceremony in Veterans Memorial Park in Las Cruces.

Captain Betty Somppie, in red sweater, is 102 years old and served during World War II as an original member of the first Women Auxillary Army Corp. She was a special guest at the dedication not the Women Veterans’ Memorial in Las Cruces.

Shoshana Johnson, a U.S. Army specialist and prisoner of war in Iraq in 2003, paid homage to the trailblazing women in uniform.

“It’s amazing to realize how many women have served before me, that have gone the distance, gone to extremes of disguising themselves as men in order to serve their nation. And yet there are those who still question whether we can serve, whether we have the heart, the mind or the strength to serve. Well, we have been serving,” Johnson said.

United Military Women of the SouthWest spearheaded the effort to create a monument to women veterans, the first in New Mexico and one of a handful in the United States. The only other monument paying tribute to all women veterans who have served in all branches of the military is located at the entrance to Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

“It makes people aware women are veterans, too,” said Karen Woods, president of United Military Women of the SouthWest. Woods served in the Navy for 22 years and in retirement has worked tirelessly for a memorial. She said women veterans are often the hidden heroes in their communities.

“You have to educate people,” Woods said.

Daryl Mashk, a Navy veteran, drove from Albuquerque with her husband to attend the dedication in Las Cruces. “It makes it all worth while. You sit there and you realize people recognize you for what you did,” she said.

The city of Las Cruces donated space at Veterans Memorial Park and the state Legislature provided a grant of $406,500 for the project. Other funding came from donations from private citizens businesses of all sizes.

The monument features six life-size bronze sculptures of women in uniforms dating to World War I through present day conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. The work pays tribute to their service in the Army, Marines, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard and Army National Guard.

The U.S. military opened all combat positions to women in 2016 but women have been serving their country in nearly every armed conflict dating to the Revolutionary War.

“You have your freedom because we have put on the uniform. When you told us we didn’t have the right, we did it anyway,” Johnson said during the ceremony.

After the dedication, Tamieka Henry and her friend Rosemary Montoya, both 23-year-old soldiers with the Army National Reserve, proudly snapped photos in front of the monument.

“My mother is a vet and she was my main motivation to serve,” Henry said.

“I’m honored to be here with so many women who have sacrificed so much,”Montoya said.