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Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Why the ashes of female WWII pilots can’t be placed at Arlington Cemetery

For 50 years, female World War II pilots have fought to be treated like their male counterparts. In her last year in office, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D) is joining their final battle: to be allowed into Arlington National Cemetery when they die.

Along with Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, Mikulski introduced legislation to again give that option to Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPs.

Elaine Harmon, a Marylander who died last year at the age of 95, was 25 when she signed up for the WASPs. She and her 1,101 fellow female pilots flew planes across the country and helped men train for combat, sometimes by taking live ammunition. They were paid less than male pilots and received no benefits. It wasn’t until 1977 that they were recognized as military veterans, although 38 of them died during their service. The Army didn’t pay for their bodies to be sent home.

Starting in 2002, Arlington Cemetery allowed members of the group to have their ashes placed at the cemetery, with full military honors. The cemetery’s burial ground remained off-limits.

Harmon, who attended the first funeral for a WASP held at Arlington, told family that she wanted her ashes to be laid to rest there with her fellow pilots, her relatives said.

Last March, a month before Harmon died, Secretary of the Army John McHugh announced that the superintendent of Arlington Cemetery did not have the authority to grant access to WASPs and other volunteers who were considered civilians during their World War II service. Mikulski said in a statement Monday that she was “deeply disappointed” by the Army’s decision.

“If they were good enough to fly for our country, risk their lives and earn the Congressional Gold Medal, they should be good enough to be laid to rest at Arlington Cemetery,” Mikulski said. “This legislation will right this wrong.”

Harmon’s granddaughter, Erin Miller, thanked Mikulski in a statement. “My family may finally be able to fulfill my grandmother’s last request,” she said.

Companion legislation has been introduced in the House by Reps. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., and Susan Davis, D-Calif.

Mikulski, the longest-serving woman in congressional history, will retire next year after 30 years in office. She and then-Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson, R-Texas, helped recognize the WASPs with the Congressional Gold Medal in 2009.

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