Joy Asuncion, who served in the U.S. Navy, poses in her Belfast home last month. Asuncion is helping lead the effort to get more women veterans from Maine to register with the Women in Military Service for America Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

BELFAST — From the days of the American Revolution to today, an estimated 3 million women have served in the military or, at times when only men could wear a uniform, worked in support roles.

Yet the personal stories of only 2,000 Maine women – and just 269,000 female veterans nationwide – are told at the only national memorial dedicated to women in the military.

Joy Asuncion of Belfast poses for a Navy boot camp photo in 1974. Photo courtesy of Joy Asuncion

Joy Asuncion is determined to fix that.

“For World War II, a lot of people think of Rosie the Riveter,” Asuncion, a retired Navy senior chief petty officer, said of the iconic image symbolizing women’s domestic contribution to the industrial war effort. “But there are also women who served who haven’t been recognized, and part of my mission – and the mission of the memorial – is to make sure that their legacy is never forgotten.”

Located at the ceremonial entrance to Arlington National Cemetery near Washington, D.C., the Women in Military Service for America Memorial is a 33,000-square-foot monument, museum and living history exhibit.

The heart of that memorial is the “registry,” a database that aims to tell the story of any woman who served, past or present.

As the memorial’s state ambassador, Asuncion is leading the ambitious Maine Women Veterans Memorial Challenge to make Maine the first state to register every female veteran. But with just 2,044 Maine registrations so far – and no official list available because of federal privacy laws – Asuncion acknowledged that “we have a long way to go.”

“We literally have to go out to nursing homes and veterans homes, and I try to go out to other veterans’ organizations around the state,” Asuncion said from the kitchen table of her modest, military-tidy Belfast home decorated with pictures of grandkids and patriotic tributes. “It takes time, but it has become my passion.”

To register, veterans or their families typically provide a name, photos, hometown, details of military service and any additional personal information (such as honors or memorable experiences) that they wish to contribute. Those records are then  made available for anyone to view at the Women in Military Service for America Memorial.

Women have worked in or alongside the military since before this country’s independence. During the American Revolution and the Civil War, they served as nurses, cooks, seamstresses, spies, couriers and even took to the battlefield disguised as men.

World War I saw the first American women in official military uniforms and attached to units such as the U.S. Army Nurse Corps. During World War II, nearly 400,000 women enlisted to do everything from clerical tasks to code-breaking and flying military aircraft domestically.

Today, women are admirals, generals, fighter pilots, combat infantry troops and submariners, serving in almost every position in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard.

“Every time women stepped up, we have been volunteers,” said retired Army Lt. Col. Marilla Cushman. “From the beginning, every one of us was a volunteer.”

A native of Fort Fairfield in Aroostook County, Cushman has been involved with the memorial ever since she and tens of thousands of others attended the October 1997 dedication ceremony. Today, Cushman directs the Women in Military Service for America Foundation’s communications and public relations team.

“We have some 3 million women who have served in or with the military since the American Revolution, and if you crack open the history books, seldom do you hear anything about them,” Cushman said by phone from Virginia. “Our mission is to help recognize these women … because their service is important. They contributed and they made a difference from the very beginning.”

Registration with the memorial is free and can be completed online at www.womensmemorial.org or via mail. Both Cushman and Asuncion, who often fills out the paperwork for older veterans, encouraged family members to submit information about their aunts, grandmothers or ancestors who served.

“Because we don’t want these women’s services lost to history,” Cushman said.

Asuncion has also started a private Facebook group, called Maine Women Veterans, whose roughly 1,100 members connect, share stories or support each other in difficult situations. And as state ambassador, Asuncion tells women veterans and active duty personnel about the registry wherever she finds them – in nursing homes and American Legion halls, on sidewalks or at Bangor International Airport as she greets troops on overseas deployments.

A board member for Honor Flight Maine, Asuncion frequently interacts with World War II and other older veterans as they travel to Washington, D.C., to see the military memorial.

She loves seeing the emotional reactions as women and their families see, for the first time, their pictures and service history displayed on the memorial’s large screens. It’s a moment of well-earned, overdue recognition for the service and sacrifice of women who may have never received much acknowledgement – and oftentimes never sought it.

“I always say to them, ‘Thank you for truly paving the way for me and other women to have careers in the military,’ ” Asuncion said. “And they always say, ‘I did that?’ ”

For more information, go to www.womensmemorial.org or contact Joy Asuncion at (207) 930-5640 or via email at [email protected]

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