Elaine Harmon was a WASP, one of the Women’s Air Force Service Pilots, a distinguished group of women who, while not technically considered part of the military, nevertheless served in variety of vital roles during World War II.
In a story from The New York Times (Feb. 28), “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.”
And these women are excluded from being buried at Arlington?
“According to Army rules for the cemetery,” the Times writes, “had Mrs. 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 American 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 Representative Martha McSally, Republican of Arizona, referring to Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter’s decision last year to open combat roles to women. …
“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. …
“ ‘It was heartbreaking and confusing,’ said Tiffany Miller, one of Mrs. 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.’
“Mrs. 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. Mrs. Harmon’s granddaughters even launched a campaign on social media [More than 165,000 have signed a petition calling for support, including me. They need to reach a threshold of 200,000]. But the Army was not budging. …
“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.”
“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. … ‘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. …
“ ‘These women were the example that women could be pilots,’ Ms. 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.’
“Support has built for the legislation, which has more than 100 co-sponsors. On Thursday, the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs sent the bill to the House floor.”
My question for the Army: If thirty-eight of these pilots died in service to their country, what does it take to be considered worthy of being buried at Arlington?
On the petition website, Harmon’s granddaughter writes, “Arlington National Cemetery states: ‘Service to country is the common thread that binds all who are remembered and honored at Arlington’; Our grandmother, and the other WASP, certainly embodied that ideal.”
How many others are in a similar position, and when will we see a change?
Correction: The 200,000 signature threshold was created by Change.org and is not tied to any government standard or the current pending legislation.