Editor's note: This story has been updated since its original publication.
WASHINGTON — Lucy Coffey dreamed of going to the Women in Military Service for America Memorial in Arlington, Va. Last weekend she got her wish — and then some.
Coffey, 108 and the nation’s oldest living female military veteran, was greeted with thunderous applause July 25 at Reagan National Airport and was welcomed to the White House by President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden.
“She’s waited over 65 years to see her memorial. ... Not too often we get to bring a veteran to the White House to meet the president and the vice president. They spent some time with her and thanked her for her service,” Allen Bergeron, chairman of the Austin Honor Flight, said.
Though Coffey — who was part of the Women’s Army Corps during World War II — did not walk and cannot speak much, she was actively engaging with the people around her.
“At 108, think of all she has seen. And now she has seen everything that was built for her,” Bergeron said. “The World War II Memorial representing the 400,000 killed and the 16 million that served and this beautiful Women’s Memorial that was built in her honor.”
Coffey enlisted in 1943, around the time of her 37th birthday. She had tried to enlist several times before, but was rejected for being too short or too slim.
She earned two Bronze Stars (for support services in the Philippines and what is now Dutch New Guinea), a WAC Service Medal, a Good Conduct Medal and a World War II Victory Medal. Coffey, whose last rank was staff sergeant, was one of 150,000 women who served as WACs during the war.
WAC members were the first women besides nurses to serve in the U.S. Army. Coffey served mainly in the Pacific theater, going to Australia and Dutch New Guinea before finally arriving in the Philippines in April 1945. Her last stop was Okinawa, Japan.
While in the Army, she worked as an accountant-statistician and served in the procurement office.
“Two of Lucy’s brothers also joined the service in World War II,” John Mulrey, Coffey’s nephew, said. “They both served in the Pacific theater in Philippines and Guam.
All three of them ended up in the Pacific at the same time.
“We could have sworn they made a connection one time ... but her brothers were actually in the infantry and a day ahead,” Mulrey said.
That meant Coffey’s brothers were usually out of the area by the time she arrived. One time, however, Coffey’s group was much closer to the fighting than they had intended, which she described as “pretty terrifying.”
Food and water were sometimes scarce for Coffey and her fellow WACs. On at least one occasion, “Navy boys” gave her onion sandwiches and beer. In New Guinea, each WAC member was given two helmets of water for personal use during periods of water shortages.
John Mulrey, a Vietnam veteran, accompanied his aunt from San Antonio, Texas, on the trip to Washington, D.C., with his wife JoAnn. He joined the military because he thought it was better to join than be drafted and because he wanted to serve his country.
“I guess (being in the military) just runs in the family,” he said.
Coffey was honorably discharged in November 1945, but stayed in Japan as a civil servant for about 10 years. She later transferred to Kelly Air Force Base in San Antonio where she worked until her retirement in 1971.
“She is very, very shy about her time in the service. She doesn’t talk about it much,” Mulrey said. “She just did what she had to do.”
“She’s just very humble,” his wife said.
Though Coffey dreamed of going back to Japan, she never did. But she was able to go to the Women in Military Service for America Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery on July 26. She smiled at the old uniforms on display and listened intently to the president of the women’s memorial, Ret. USAF Brig. Gen. Wilma L. Vaught, explain different exhibits as she was wheeled around the memorial.
Earlier in the day, Coffey visited the National World War II Memorial, where she met former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kansas) and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas).
American Airlines provided a free, first-class trip for Coffey. The Austin Honor Flight team took care of the rest, spending about two weeks pulling everything together.
“This, I think, has made her feel so proud. ... and I think it has awoken a spirit that she buried a long time ago,” John Mulrey said. “It is the ultimate memory for Lucy.”