Rest in Peace. Congress may soon decide whether the remains of some World War II pilots are allowed to do that in Arlington National Cemetery.
Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) flew military aircraft in noncombat roles during the war. They freed up male pilots for combat. The women were considered civilians at first. But in 1977, Congress gave them veteran status.
Since then, WASPs have been permitted to have ashes placed at Arlington. Arlington is the U.S. military cemetery near the capital. But last year, then-Secretary of the Army John McHugh changed the policy back. He says lawyers decided WASPs should never have been allowed in Arlington.
Arizona legislator Martha McSally calls the Army's ban on WASPs wrong. She is asking Congress to reverse McHugh's decision. "We thought this was settled in 1977," she says. "The Army can give some bureaucratic answer, but they're on the wrong side of this."
WASP Elaine Harmon died last year at age 95. Her family has been working to have her ashes placed at Arlington.
In-ground burial at 624-acre Arlington is restricted. Not even all World War II veterans can be buried there. But placing ashes is not quite so difficult.
Arlington's rules state that "any former member of the Armed Forces who served on active duty (other than for training) and whose last service terminated honorably" can have his or her ashes placed at Arlington.
So far cemetery officials haven’t budged. Allowing WASPs would make the cemetery fill up faster.
"We have to make tough decisions today that will affect the life of the cemetery 20 to 30 years from now," says a spokesperson.
Just over 1,000 WASPs served in the pilot program. Only about 100 are still living. Not everyone entitled to Arlington chooses to be cremated and placed there. But officials worry. They fear a domino effect if they let WASPs in. For example, World War II Merchant Marines also received veteran status in 1977. Officials believe their inclusion would be a greater strain on space than the WASPs’.
History professor Kate Landdeck researches WASPs. She understands Arlington's concerns. But she says WASP history is different: WASPs were intended as a full-fledged army unit. But gender bias kept them out back then.
Meanwhile Elaine Harmon's family keeps her ashes in a closet. They say they’re not asking for special treatment. They just want the same rights for her as other veterans.