WASHINGTON -- Shirley Minsky-Cohen was a teen-ager when World War II broke out. Seized by patriotism, she told her father, "I wish I could get into the Army."
"Don't be ridiculous," he replied. "Women will never serve in the Army."
But Ms. Minsky-Cohen soon found a way. She signed up with the then-new Women's Army Corps and served nearly four years, including one in Japan, working as a staff sergeant and a secretary.
Ms. Minsky-Cohen, who lives in Broward County near Davie, Fla., is 70 now. She remembers her four years in the military as the happiest of her life.
She also remembers the twinge of envy she felt a couple of years ago, when a statue to honor women who served in Vietnam was dedicated in Washington, near the black wall that is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
"The women who served as nurses in Vietnam -- I understand -- have their own memorial and they deserve it," Ms. Minsky-Cohen says. "But those of us who came before them have not been recognized for the service that we performed."
That's finally about to change.
Thursday, ground will be broken for the long-awaited Women in Military Service for America Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery. The memorial, expected to be built and dedicated within two years, will honor the estimated 1.8 million women who have served in the armed forces since the Revolutionary War.
"As a World War II veteran, I feel it's about time," says Ms. Minsky-Cohen, who will attend the ground-breaking.
President Clinton and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton are among the dignitaries expected to attend, retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Wilma Vaught says. General Vaught is president of the board of directors of the nonprofit Women in Military Service for America Memorial Foundation Inc. She calls women who have served "America's best-kept military secret."
The privately funded $25 million memorial, which Congress authorized in 1986, will be at the cemetery's neoclassical gateway, a semicircular retaining wall constructed in 1932 and now badly in need of repair.
The memorial will transform the granite wall into the facade of a building. Outside will be a reflecting pool. Inside will be an educational center with a computer archive of women's photographs, memories and service records, an auditorium and a hall of honor, where the names of women killed in action, killed in the line of duty and taken as prisoners of war will be listed on the walls.
Glass tablets inscribed with quotations will serve as skylights by day. By night, light will pass through the tablets to illuminate the cemetery hillside.
Congress has authorized $9.5 million for repair and restoration work. The rest is up to the nonprofit foundation, which is seeking public donations.
"We did seriously contemplate a statue at one stage," General Vaught says. "And our feeling was that it would be so very difficult to get a single statue that covered the service of women from the American Revolution to the present day. When you consider the diversity of what they've done -- from typing to flying airplanes to being nurses -- we wouldn't be able to get a single statue that women would be able to look at and see themselves in it."