U.S. Army Bars Female World War II Pilots from Burial at Arlington Cemetery
By Michael S. Schmidt, New York Times
SILVER SPRING, Md. — Shortly after Elaine D. Harmon died in April at 95, her family found a letter in a fireproof box with explicit instructions: She wanted her ashes placed at Arlington National Cemetery.
“Even if there are no ashes left, I would like an empty urn placed at Arlington,” wrote Harmon, who had been part of a 1,000-women unit during World War II that transported military planes and bombers, and trained men to fly them.
But 10 months later, Harmon has not had a funeral, memorial service or burial. A large black box of her ashes sits on a shelf above some blouses and sweaters in her daughter’s bedroom closet in a condominium in this Washington suburb.
Harmon’s family has delayed laying her to rest because the Army, which oversees Arlington National Cemetery, says her wartime unit — known as the WASPs, shorthand for Women Airforce Service Pilots — was not technically part of the military. Thus, the Army ruled, her ashes cannot be placed in a columbarium there. (The Army also argues that the cemetery — where more than 400,000 veterans, their spouses and others are buried — is running out of space for graves and urns.)
Some members of Congress and veterans are outraged by the Army’s decision, saying it is a gross contradiction.
According to Army rules for the cemetery, had Harmon been married to a veteran already laid to rest at Arlington, her request would be approved, even if she had never served in a military unit. And several foreigners are buried in Arlington — including a German prisoner of war from World War II who died in U.S. custody.
“Think of the irony that at the same time the Pentagon is opening up all missions to men and women in the military they are closing the door to the women who were pioneers,” said Rep. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., referring to Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s decision last year to open combat roles to women.
McSally, who was the Air Force’s first female fighter pilot to fly in combat, has introduced legislation that would allow the WASPs to be buried at Arlington. She said only about 100 women from the unit were still alive, and that just two had requested they be laid to rest at the cemetery.
“If you’re not going to do the right thing, we’re going to make it happen,” McSally said.
The Army said an internal legal review last year concluded that a technicality in legislation passed in 1977 prevented the WASPs from being buried at Arlington. The bill designated the women as active duty for the purposes of Department of Veterans Affairs benefits. But that legislation did not give them status with the armed services, and so did not confer the right to be buried at Arlington.
“Based upon current demand and capacity, Arlington will exhaust interment and inurnment space for any active-duty service member or veteran in the next 20 years, by the mid-2030s,” the Army said in a statement. “As stewards of these hallowed grounds we remain committed to maintaining Arlington as an active cemetery for as long as possible to continue to honor and serve our nation’s military heroes.”
During World War II, the military, along with shipbuilders, trucking companies and even baseball teams, turned to women to fill jobs left empty by the millions of men who had been sent off to fight. Like those active-duty military members, the WASPs wore uniforms, carried weapons, had access to classified information and saluted their superiors. Along with training men to fly bombers, the WASPs flew fighter planes from military bases to ports, where they were shipped to battle overseas. At least three dozen of them died or were killed while serving.
Believing that Harmon could be buried at Arlington like other veterans, members of her family applied shortly after she died. That was when they learned that since the WASPs were not technically active-duty service members, they did not have the right to be laid to rest there.
“It was heartbreaking and confusing,” said Tiffany Miller, one of Harmon’s granddaughters. “To single out WASPs is cruel — to say your service doesn’t count, that you’re not good enough to be buried in Arlington.”
Harmon’s family — which, like most Americans, was not schooled in how to navigate the workings of Pentagon bureaucracy — was unsure what to do. Relatives filed Freedom of Information Act requests to learn as much as they could about the policy, and they contacted their senators and representative. Harmon’s granddaughters even launched a campaign on social media. But the Army was not budging.
In early January, Harmon’s daughter Terry and granddaughter Erin were scheduled to appear on Fox News’ “On the Record With Greta Van Susteren.” But at the last minute, a producer called and said that their segment had been canceled and that McSally was going to appear on the program to discuss the matter as a veteran and member of Congress.
Harmon’s daughter and granddaughter had never been in contact with McSally and were surprised she was involved. They saw online that McSally had been the Air Force’s first female pilot to fly in combat and the first woman to command a fighter squadron, and they eagerly waited to watch the segment. On the show, McSally announced that she would introduce legislation that would allow WASPs to be buried at Arlington.
McSally said she had a long-standing bond with the WASPs. When she was climbing the ranks as a pilot, a group of WASPs in Arizona sought her out.
“Very few people could relate to what I was going through,” McSally said in a telephone interview.
“These women became friends and mentors and encouragers,” she said. “I would meet with them from time to time when I was feeling down and frustrated, and they would tell me stories about what they went through and it would get me motivated to fight another day. I loved these women, and I wouldn’t be where I am today and have the opportunities I’ve had without them helping me break through the glass ceiling.”
Support has built for the legislation, which has more than 10 co-sponsors. On Thursday, the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs sent the bill to the House floor.
“These women were the example that women could be pilots,” McSally said. “An airplane doesn’t care if you’re a boy or a girl. It’s how you fly, shoot the gun and drop bombs. And they proved that, and I’m just so grateful for them.”
To Learn More:
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