Lawmakers call on Army to reinstate Arlington burial rights for female WWII pilots

Lawmakers call on Army to reinstate Arlington burial rights for female WWII pilots
© Greg Nash

A bipartisan group of lawmakers, including several military veterans, called on the Army to reverse its decision to revoke inurnment rights for female World War II pilots at the Arlington National Cemetery on Wednesday. 

"These women, 1,074 of them, stepped up to serve when our nation needed them the most in World War II," Rep. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.), a retired Air Force colonel and the first woman to fly in combat, said at a press conference. "These women were pioneers. These women were heroes and personal mentors to me." 

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The female pilots were known as Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPs. They were a group of 1,074 women who flew non-combat missions during World War II, ferrying aircraft across the country, training combat pilots and towing airborne targets for other aircraft. Thirty-eight were killed in crashes.

The plan in 1942 was to give these female pilots full military status, but Congress never approved the plan, and the women remained "civilians." In 1977, Congress retroactively granted that status to the WASPs for the purposes of all laws administered by the Department of Veterans Affairs. 

The Army, which runs the Arlington National Cemetery, approved in 2002 "active duty designees," including the WASPs, for military honors and inurnments. But in March 2015, then-Army Secretary John McHugh reversed the decision. 

"The fact that it took until 1977 to even recognize them for veterans status is ridiculous. The only reason they were not militarized at the time was because of sexism and gender hangups about the role of women. Otherwise, they should have been active-duty," said McSally, a former A-10 pilot and squadron commander. 

"We're calling on this administration ... calling on the secretary of Defense, calling on the president, they can change this right now. They can make exceptions to every rule, and they can allow the WASPs to be laid to rest as the heroes that they are at Arlington National Cemetery," she added. 

McSally and Rep. Susan Davis (D-Calif.), ranking member of the House Armed Services Military Personnel Subcommittee, introduced legislation in the House in January 2015 that would restore inurnment rights for WASPs at the cemetery. 

The bill now has 183 co-sponsors in the House, and a companion bill introduced by Sen. Barbara MikulskiBarbara Ann MikulskiLobbying World Only four Dem senators have endorsed 2020 candidates Only four Dem senators have endorsed 2020 candidates MORE (D-Md.) has 29 co-sponsors in the Senate. 

The effort was spurred by the family of Elaine Harmon, a former WASP who passed away in April 2015. The family sought military honors for Harmon at Arlington per her wishes, but were denied. 

At the Wednesday press conference, McSally and Davis, flanked by military veterans serving in Congress, called on the Army to reinstate those rights for WASPs. 

"I was fortunate to have extraordinary trailblazers in these women," said Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), a retired Army National Guard lieutenant colonel and the first female combat veteran in the Senate.

"We must move forward, and not backwards. And the Pentagon should do the right thing and join us in honoring these women and restore their right to have their ashes placed at Arlington National Cemetery with full honors," said Ernst, an original bill co-sponsor. 

"This is just something that has to happen for these brave women," added Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharOvernight Defense: House passes T spending package with defense funds | Senate set to vote on blocking Saudi arms sales | UN nominee defends climate change record Overnight Defense: House passes T spending package with defense funds | Senate set to vote on blocking Saudi arms sales | UN nominee defends climate change record The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by MAPRx — Trump jumps into 2020 race MORE (D-Minn.). 

Reps. Tulsi GabbardTulsi GabbardWarren says she's open to decriminalizing sex work Warren says she's open to decriminalizing sex work Key endorsements: A who's who in early states MORE (D-Hawaii), an Army National Guard major, and Ryan Zinke (R-Mont.), a retired Navy SEAL commander, were also present, along with members of Harmon's family. 

"I really appreciate Congress standing up for my grandmother and my family, and all these women from World War II who were pretty much forgotten after the war was over," said Erin Miller, Harmon's granddaughter. She said her grandmother had lobbied Congress in the 1970s to win limited status as veterans for the WASPs. 

"It's now 70 years after my grandmother served in World War II, and I'm still dealing with this problem and she's not even here anymore," she said. 

Lawmakers also thanked Change.org, whose organizers helped to gather more than 170,000 signatures on a petition

After the conference, Acting Army Secretary Patrick Murphy issued a statement saying the Army had notified Congress, requesting legislation to expand select active-duty designee funeral benefits for WASPs. 

"The Army is supporting legislation making active-duty designees, to include Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) and Merchant Marines, eligible for above-ground inurnment in [Arlington National Cemetery]," he said. 

He added that while legislation is the "most expeditious way to achieve the desired result," active-duty designee families are invited to submit exceptions to policy while legislation is pending. 

Earlier in the day, Murphy told McSally at a House Armed Services Committee hearing that he supported the legislation "100 percent." 

"I'm trying to right the wrong," he told her. "I agree with you. I support you 100 percent."

Zinke, whose daughter is a Navy diver, said, "This is, once again, a bureaucratic issue that needs to be solved." 

"It strikes at fairness, and we need to honor all those who served, and certainly the WASPs have a great tradition, and we are in their debt," said Zinke

—Updated at 12:21 p.m.