House votes to restore Arlington burial rights for female WWII pilots

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Female World War II pilots are a step closer to burial rights at Arlington National Cemetery after the House unanimously passed a bill Tuesday to grant them full military status.

“This is the right thing to do,” said Rep. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.), a retired Air Force colonel and the first woman to fly in combat, who introduced the bill with Rep. Susan Davis (D-Calif.). “The fact that these women were denied this right is unconscionable and, quite frankly, infuriating when we heard about it.”

The House passed the bill 385-0.

{mosads}The pilots, called Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPs, were a group of 1,074 women who flew noncombat missions during World War II. They ferried aircraft across the country, trained combat pilots and towed airborne targets for other aircraft. Thirty-eight were killed in crashes.

The WASPs were supposed to be given full military status when the program was conceived in 1942. But Congress never approved the plan, so 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.

In 2002, the Army, which runs the cemetery, approved military honors and inurnments for “active duty designees,” including the WASPs. But in March of last year, then-Army Secretary John McHugh reversed the decision.

McSally and Davis’s bill, which has 183 House co-sponsors, would restore those rights to WASPs and other active-duty designees who are not already interred somewhere else.

“This is a matter of justice and a matter of fairness,” Rep. Corrine Brown (D-Fla.), ranking member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said, while highlighting that the bill coincides with Women’s History Month.

A companion bill in the Senate introduced by Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) has 29 co-sponsors.

The bills were spurred by the family of former WASP Elaine Harmon, who died in April 2015. Harmon wanted military honors at Arlington, but when her family sought them, they were denied.

Acting Army Secretary Patrick Murphy has said the Army is in support of Congress’s efforts to restore inurnment rights.

While the legislation is pending, he added, family members of WASPs can request individual exceptions to the current policy. 

“I’m trying to right the wrong,” he told McSally at a hearing last week. “I agree with you. I support you 100 percent.”

Tags Barbara Mikulski Corrine Brown

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