Women World War II pilots are again guaranteed full burial honors at Arlington National Cemetery.
That is because the two main U.S. political parties put their differences aside to change the policy that had blocked the women’s burial at Arlington.
Both houses of Congress approved a bill to permit inurnment of the remains at the cemetery, just outside Washington, D.C. President Barack Obama signed it into law on May 20.
The government once had a policy that gave the former Women Airforce Service Pilots, known as WASP, rights to be buried at Arlington. But that policy was canceled in 2015.
The new law gives women who flew during World War II the right to be inurned in the nation’s highest honor military cemetery. Inurnment means their ashes can be laid to rest there.
"The Women Airforce Service Pilots courageously answered their country's call in a time of need,” President Obama said, when signing the bill into law. “[They blazed] a trail for the brave women who have given and continue to give so much in service to this nation since."
The issue was personal for Tiffany Miller and her sisters. Their grandmother, Lieutenant Elaine Danforth Harmon, had been a WASP pilot. They said she wanted to be buried at Arlington Cemetery.
So they started an online campaign to give her the burial she wanted.
“It was her last wish to be in Arlington," Miller told CNN. "We haven't been able to hold a funeral for her because we wanted to honor that wish."
Harmon died in April at age 95.
The issue also was personal for Maryland Senator Barbara Mikulski. She knew Harmon, who had lived in Maryland.
Mikulski, a member of the Democratic Party, worked with Iowa Senator Joni Ernst, a Republican, to quickly move the bill through Congress.
Mikulski said she proposed the legislation “to honor the service and sacrifice of WASP in defending our freedom.”
She said, “if they were good enough to fly for our country … they should be good enough for Arlington.”
Back in 2009, Mikulski proposed a bill to award the Congressional Gold Medal to the WASP. Congress presents the gold medal for exceptional acts of service to the United States or for lifetime achievement. The women pilots received the award in March 2010.
But since the beginning of the WASP program, those women struggled to be considered military veterans. The program lasted two years -- from 1942-1944 – and just over 1,000 women served in it. Of those, 38 died in service -- 11 in training and 27 during military operations.
The women pilots did not fly in actual battles, but took part in non- combat duties across the country. They trained male pilots on how to operate aircraft. They also towed targets for live-ammunition air-to-air gunnery training.
But the female pilots also faced bias against women serving in nontraditional positions. They were considered civilians throughout their wartime service.
"If a girl got killed, her parents didn't get anything, not even a flag -- nothing," WASP Barbara Erickson London told CBS News in 2014. "Not even any acknowledgement that their daughter had been in the military."
The women pilots were finally given veteran status in 1977. In 2002, Arlington Cemetery said the women could have their ashes buried there with military honors.
But that policy changed in 2015 when then-Army Secretary John McHugh wrote that the cemetery did not have the ability to permit such inurnments. The Army also noted space restrictions at the cemetery.
Arlington National Cemetery, founded in 1866, is a military cemetery located across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. More than 300,000 veterans of every American conflict, from the Revolutionary War to Iraq and Afghanistan are buried there.
But with less space, the cemetery now has strict rules for ground burials. Most active duty members of the Armed Forces, and any veteran retired from active service, can be buried in Arlington.
And now, Mikulski said in a statement, the WASP “can once and for all be laid to rest alongside our nation’s patriots at Arlington National Cemetery.”
I’m Anne Ball.
Words in This Story
inurnment – n. the placement of ashes, cremated remains, in an urn for burial
blaze – v. to move very quickly
online – adj. relating to the internet
achievement – n. a result gained by effort
combat – adj. engaging in battle
tow - v. to carry something behind a vehicle
bias – n. prejudice, a personal and unreasoned judgment against someone
strict – adj. careful obeying of the rules