No rest for the WASP

Fight­ing for the the right to Arlington burial for Women Airforce Ser­vice Pi­lots

Baltimore Sun - - COMMENTARY - By Erin Miller Erin Miller led her fam­ily’s cam­paign to en­sure that her grand­mother, Elaine D. Har­mon, a mem­ber of the WASP, was granted her fi­nal wish to be laid to rest at Arlington Na­tional Ceme­tery. Her email is er­in­; Twit­ter: @millerl

My grand­mother, Elaine Har­mon, was a mem­ber of the Women Airforce Ser­vice Pi­lots — the WASP — who flew planes dur­ing World War II. The WASP were not rec­og­nized as part of the Army Air Corps at the time of their ser­vice largely be­cause of dis­crim­i­na­tion against women pi­lots. In 1977, pub­lic law 95-202 was passed fi­nally grant­ing the WASP and other groups retroac­tive recog­ni­tion as vet­er­ans.

Yet the women still strug­gled for full ac­knowl­edg­ment, even in death. Prior to 2002, there were no mil­i­tary hon­ors pro­vided for WASP fu­ner­als at Arlington Na­tional Ceme­tery. My grand­mother thought it was shame­ful that her fel­low trail­blaz­ing pi­lots were treated with such dis­re­spect, but af­ter decades of fight­ing to be rec­og­nized, she had grown ac­cus­tomed to in­con­sis­tent treat­ment within the fed­eral gov­ern­ment.

In 2002, Irene Englund, an­other mem­ber of the WASP, re­ceived mil­i­tary hon­ors at Arlington Na­tional Ceme­tery af­ter a cam­paign by her daugh­ter Julie, who suc­cess­fully ar­gued that her mother was a vet­eran who had a right to mil­i­tary hon­ors (the right to be buried along­side her vet­eran hus­band was with­out ques­tion). My grand­mother at­tended Irene Englund’s fu­neral, and she, along with the re­main­ing WASP and their fam­i­lies, be­lieved the is­sue had been set­tled.

On April 21, 2015, my grand­mother passed away af­ter sev­eral years of fight­ing breast can­cer. Her last re­quest was to have her ashes placed at the Colum­bar­ium at Arlington Na­tional Ceme­tery. She wanted a sim­ple mil­i­tary fu­neral cer­e­mony at Arlington Na­tional Ceme­tery and per­haps a small gath­er­ing at the Women in Mil­i­tary Ser­vice to Amer­ica Memo­rial, of which she had been a char­ter mem­ber. My grand­fa­ther did not serve in the mil­i­tary dur­ing his life­time due to a health con­di­tion, so my fam­ily was in the un­usual po­si­tion of ap­ply­ing for in­urn­ment at Arlington Na­tional Ceme­tery for my grand­mother based on her own mer­its, not as a mil­i­tary spouse.

We thought there would be no is­sues sur­round­ing my grand­mother’s ap­pli­ca­tion, given Julie Englund’s ear­lier fight. We were sur­prised to learn that a month ear­lier, then Sec­re­tary of the Army John McHugh had re­leased a memo claim­ing that mem­bers of the WASP and the other groups cov­ered by pub­lic law 95-202, such as the mer­chant marines of World War II, were no longer el­i­gi­ble to have their ashes in­urned at Arlington Na­tional Ceme­tery ac­cord­ing to a le­gal re­view. Arlington Terry Har­mon, right, hugs Rep. Martha McSally of Ari­zona be­fore the fu­neral ser­vice for Ms. Har­mon’s mother, Elaine Har­mon, at Arlington Na­tional Ceme­tery on Sept. 7. Na­tional Ceme­tery de­nied our ap­pli­ca­tion for my grand­mother based on that memo.

Be­cause the law from 1977 grant­ing the WASP retroac­tive vet­eran sta­tus spec­i­fied recog­ni­tion only un­der what we now call the Depart­ment of Vet­er­ans Af­fairs, which runs 135 na­tional ceme­ter­ies, and not un­der any other agency such as the Depart­ment of the Army, which runs Arlington Na­tional Ceme­tery, the Army had a solid le­gal ar­gu­ment to deny our ap­pli­ca­tion for my grand­mother. It was clear that the orig­i­nal law needed to be amended to en­sure equal ap­pli­ca­tion of vet­er­ans recog­ni­tion for the WASP across these gov­ern­ment agen­cies.

Un­for­tu­nately, amend­ing the law meant go­ing through a grid­locked Congress with a long agenda of stag­nat­ing ef­forts, from fund­ing for Zika re­search to the con­fir­ma­tion hear­ing for a Supreme Court nom­i­nee. Most Amer­i­cans prob­a­bly don’t re­mem­ber what it looks like when Congress does its job .

To our fam­ily’s sur­prise, Congress ral­lied around a bill in­tro­duced by Ari­zona Repub­li­can Martha McSally to amend the orig­i­nal law and en­sure that WASP were el­i­gi­ble for in­urn­ment at Arlington Na­tional Ceme­tery. We­held my grand­mother out as a spe­cific ben­e­fi­ciary of this leg­is­la­tion and would not ac­cept a case-by­case ex­cep­tion from the Army to get her into Arlington sooner. We wanted to en­sure that all the WASP were rec­og­nized as equal, even if most did not want to be at Arlington af­ter they took their fi­nal flight.

It was frus­trat­ing to wait as the bill wound its way through the leg­isla­tive process. Even in record time by con­gres­sional stan­dards at 20 weeks, watch­ing my mom stress about whether her own mother would be granted her fi­nal re­quest grew in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult. Be­ing na­tive to the Wash­ing­ton, D.C., sub­urbs, my fam­ily was all too aware of the bizarre cir­cum­stances that can de­rail even the sim­plest leg­is­la­tion. Rep­re­sen­ta­tive McSally and her staff main­tained this bill as a pri­or­ity, know­ing that our fam­ily was wait­ing to give a proper rest­ing place to my grand­mother. Be­cause of their dili­gence, I never doubted that the bill would pass.

On Sept. 7, 2016, my grand­mother was laid to rest at Arlington Na­tional Ceme­tery in a cer­e­mony that was much big­ger than she likely en­vi­sioned: about 200 guests, dozens of re­porters, three fel­low WASP, and a cou­ple ofmem­bers of Congress. This was fol­lowed by a trib­ute to her and the other ladies of the WASP at the Women in Mil­i­tary Ser­vice to Amer­ica Memo­rial with speak­ers from our fam­ily, from the Air Force and from Congress. Rep. Martha McSally was there, as she said she would be when she promised to fix this prob­lem on Jan. 6.

As I started read­ing through the me­dia ar­ti­cles writ­ten about that day, one photo stood out to me. It’s of my mother hug­ging Rep­re­sen­ta­tive McSally. The look of pride and grat­i­tude on my mom’s face says it all. It took 505 days from my grand­mother’s death and an act of Congress, but she is now at peace at Arlington Na­tional Ceme­tery.


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