Female pilots who served in the air forces during World War II can now be buried at Arlington National Cemetery, thanks to legislation President Obama signed Friday.
Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPs, were buried at the military cemetery from 2002 until 2015, when then-Army Secretary John McHugh ruled that they never should have been allowed to be under then-current law.
The family of 2nd Lt. Elaine Danforth Harmon, a Marylander who died last year at 95, has been fighting to change the policy ever since. Harmon was one of over a thousand women who flew planes for transport and training during the war.
During the war, Congress voted down a bill that would have granted the female pilots military status. The Army wouldn’t even pay to send home the bodies of the 38 women who died during their service. While the WASPs were recognized as veterans in 1977 and awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 2010, the Army argued that because Arlington Cemetery is run by the Army rather than the Department of Veterans Affairs, they could not be buried there unless the law was changed.
At first, Harmon’s granddaughter Erin Miller was skeptical that new legislation was even possible.
“I’m a lawyer, and I was like: ‘God, Congress can’t do anything. That would be a nightmare. I don’t want them involved,’ ” she recalled. But after meeting with hundreds of representatives who pushed for the change, she was overwhelmed by the support.
Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), the longest-serving woman in Congress, introduced the bill in the Senate in January. Rep. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.), a retired Air Force colonel who took office last year, pushed it in the House.
“Today we have righted a terrible wrong,” Mikulski said in a statement. “If they were good enough to fly for our country, risk their lives and earn the Congressional Gold Medal, they should be good enough for Arlington.”
Partisanship hasn’t disappeared completely. House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) laid blame for the WASPs’ predicament at Obama’s feet, saying in a recent statement that “the administration stripped these female pioneers of their eligibility.”
But the change passed through Congress without opposition.
“I had to leave work early because I couldn’t concentrate — that’s how happy I am,” Miller said Friday after the bill was signed.
Her family now must apply at Arlington for a new funeral date. It’s unclear how long they will have to wait. But Miller said she knows it will be less than a year, which is how long her grandmother’s ashes have been waiting on a shelf in her mother’s closet.