Column: Let WASPs Into Arlington

Wednesday, March 16, 2016
Oh, they’ve made exceptions. The men in charge of approving coveted plots at Arlington National Cemetery have made hundreds of exceptions to the strict military rules about who gets buried there.

A chief White House usher was an exception. As were a doctor who developed an oral vaccine against polio, an ambassador and a national security adviser. And don’t forget the retired brigadier general, Charles F. Blair Jr., who didn’t meet the military requirements, but was married to a famous Hollywood actress, Maureen O’Hara. Right here, sir, we have a spot.

But when it comes to a World War II pilot who happens to be a woman? Nope. No exception available. No space in Arlington for you, Second Lt. Elaine Danforth Harmon.

This isn’t some long-standing, sexist rule that’s keeping Harmon, who died at 95 a year ago, from being given full military honors at Arlington. This is last year’s reversal of the eligibility that female pilots were granted in 2002.

Still think women’s rights aren’t seeing a backslide?

Harmon and her fellow Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) risked their lives just like their male counterparts did. They ferried planes, tested repaired aircraft, instructed male pilots and towed targets for air combat training.

In fact, 38 of them did die while serving their country. And Harmon often told the story of other WASPs passing a hat to cover the cost of sending one of the killed female pilot’s body home. The military wouldn’t pay for that.

For 50 years, the women who stepped forward to serve when so few welcomed their service have been fighting for recognition.

Back when they were risking their lives, they fought for equal pay, for flight insurance, they fought to get their room and board paid for.

Three decades later, in 1975, Harmon testified before Congress, lobbying for full veterans’ rights. That finally came in 1977. And in 2002, the WASPs were granted eligibility for Arlington honors.

But that changed last year when then-Secretary of the Army John McHugh reversed their eligibility for burial or even simple inurnment — to have their ashes placed in the niche wall in the cemetery.

The Army picked the wrong WASP to shut out. Harmon raised a family of fighters. Don’t forget, this was a grandma who continued flying small airplanes most of her life. She went bungee jumping in New Zealand when she turned 80. Her photos and memories are in aviation and war museums across America.

So after her family mourned her death last spring and had her final request —- burial at Arlington — denied, the fight became a three-generation affair.

“This is a family that’s not going to let it go,” said Emily Miller, Harmon’s 39-year-old granddaughter. “My sister was a lobbyist, I’m an attorney, and we grew up watching her talking at conferences, testifying, talking to people about what she did. We’re the family to do this.”

The campaign to get grandma into Arlington began when one of her daughters, Terry Harmon, 69, started writing letters.

Miller, one of her 11 grandchildren, knew that tactic wouldn’t work. “Mom, you can write letters,” she said, “but that’s not going to accomplish much.”

And that’s when Miller launched her social media campaign. She posted the picture of her grandma’s ashes on the shelf in her mom’s closet. She followed that with photos of grandma in her bomber jacket and by her airplanes. Grandma testifying before Congress. Grandma and other WASPs receiving the Congress-
ional Gold Medal in 2009.

Miller’s lobbying got two bills into the pipeline to get WASPs back into Arlington.

“We don’t want to just make one exception for her. This has to be a change in the law,” Miller said.

The House bill, introduced by Rep. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., a retired Air Force pilot, has 174 co-sponsors as of this week, Miller said.

And last week, Miller visited 31 Senate offices to lobby for support of the Senate bill, introduced by Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Maryland.

They have more than 170,000 supporters on a Change.Org petition. All of this, really, is pretty ridiculous for her to have to do.

There are lots and lots of women buried in Arlington. Wives, most of them.

When you look at all the exception requests, you see wives, ex-wives, first wives. Usually, the military is fine with them. There are also plenty of women buried with their parents on something once called the “spinster policy” — women who were “never married” and “childless.”

Those exceptions, in official military documents, are usually explained as “humanitarian.”

“The ridiculous thing is that if her husband was buried there, then she could be buried there, too,” Miller said. “There are 15 WASPs there buried with their husbands.” But each of those women deserved to be there on her own merits.

Humanitarian? How about moral. And just. And right.

Petula Dvorak is a Washington Post columnist.

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