Bill to restore burial rights for female WWII pilots flies through Congress

Following an online petition and lobbying campaign, the House and Senate approved a bill Wednesday to restore eligibility for former Women Airforce Service Pilots to have their ashes placed at Arlington National Cemetery.

Female World War II pilots who want to continue placing their ashes at Arlington National Cemetery moved one step closer after Congress sent President Obama a bill that received wide bipartisan support.

"It's been just 19 weeks since the Army's decision to kick out our pioneering female World War II pilots was brought to light, and we've been fighting ever since," Rep. Martha McSally, (R) of Arizona, the bill's lead sponsor and a retired Air Force fighter pilot, told the Associated Press.

The women, who served in a unit known as Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPs, flew noncombat missions and were considered civilians during the war.

But after winning veterans’ rights following a lobbying campaign in 1977, many of the surviving WASPs were surprised to learn earlier this year that they were no longer eligible for an above-ground burial at Arlington.

The family of Elaine Harmon, a WASP who had hoped to be buried at Arlington before she died last year, began lobbying Congress to restore the women’s eligibility.

The House approved a bill to do so on Wednesday hours after it passed the Senate on a voice vote, while a petition has received more than 170,000 signatures.

In March 2015, then-Army Secretary John McHugh quietly overturned the 2002 Army ruling that allowed the women’s ashes to be placed at Arlington with military honors.

It was “a slap in the face,” Nell Bright, who served as a WASP, including towing targets for anti-aircraft training, told the Monitor.

Just over 1,000 women were accepted as WASPs between 1942 and 1944, flying missions that sometimes turned perilous, as the Monitor’s Anna Mulrine reports:

The WASPs did a range of dangerous jobs, from the live-fire training to picking up new aircraft fresh off the floors of the factories that were trying desperately to innovate and win the war for America. Some 38 women died in their service as WASPs during World War II.

Not all World War II veterans are eligible for in-ground burial at Arlington, where space is limited. But eligibility for the placement of ashes, also known as inurnment, is less strict. Under the military cemetery’s rules, “any former member of the Armed Forces who served on active duty (other than for training) and whose last service terminated honorably,” is eligible to have their ashes placed there.

Ms. Bright, who recalled the contentious 1977 lobbying battle and support by Sen. Barry Goldwater that led the women to win veterans’ rights, said she personally hoped to be buried at the military cemetery at Fort Douglas, near her home in Salt Lake City.

But for people who do want Arlington honors,  not allowing it would be “ridiculous,” she told the Monitor. “We’re veterans – and we should have that privilege.”

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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