No WASPs Allowed: The Strict Regulations of Arlington National Cemetery

No WASPs Allowed: The Strict Regulations of Arlington National Cemetery

Olivia Keller, KLJ Notes Editor[1]

Ten months after her death, the burial arrangements for one woman have caused new legislation to be considered in Congress. Elaine D. Harmon, a member of the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (the “WASPs”) during World War II, died on April 21, 2015, at the age of ninety-five.[2] During her time as a WASP, she transported military planes and bombers, and trained men on how to use them in combat.[3] She was one of only a thousand women who completed the training for this highly selective unit.[4] Being a WASP was an important part of her life, so it did not come as a surprise when Mrs. Harmon left a letter to her family with instructions for her final resting place: Arlington National Cemetery.[5]

However, the challenges her family has gone through to grant her final wish have been quite surprising. Believing that Mrs. Harmon could be buried at Arlington like any other veteran, her family members applied for a space shortly after she died.[6] The Army, which oversees Arlington National Cemetery, says she cannot be buried there because her wartime unit was not part of the military.[7] As part of this argument, the Army has stated that the cemetery is running low on space; however, there are less than one hundred WASPs still alive today.[8]

The WASP program was created by General Henry “Hap” Arnold in 1942 and ran until 1944.[9] General Hap formed the WASPs with the intention of granting them full military status, but Congress failed to do so.[10] Congress has since passed legislation retroactively granting active duty status to WASPs for the purposes of laws administered by the Department of Veterans Affairs, and also awarded the WASPs the Congressional Gold Medal.[11]

In 2002, Arlington began accepting active duty designees, including WASPs, for military honors and interments, a decision that was reversed in March 2015 by then-Secretary of the Army John McHugh.[12] According to current rules of the cemetery, if Mrs. Harmon had been married to a veteran who was laid to rest at Arlington, her request would be approved, even if she had never served as a WASP.[13] Additionally, several foreigners are buried in the cemetery.[14]

This result seemed contradictory and unfair to some members of Congress and veterans, who are striving to change the Army’s policies so that Mrs. Harmon, and other women like her, can be laid to rest in perhaps the most hallowed ground in the nation.[15] Representative Martha McSally (R-Arizona), and the Air Force’s first female fighter pilot to fly in combat, introduced legislation that would restore the WASPs’ eligibility to be buried in Arlington.[16] She has done so in reaction to what she calls the “shameful inaction” of the Army, which could solve this problem without legislative intervention.[17] The legislation, H.R. 4336, has gained 141 bipartisan cosponsors in the House of Representatives and is endorsed by several veterans, military, and women’s advocacy groups.[18] It was passed by the House Veterans Affairs Committee on February 25, and now continues on in the legislative process.[19] Additionally, Rep. McSally led a bipartisan Congressional effort that sent a letter to the Acting Secretary of the Army, urging him to immediately reverse the Army’s decision.[20]

For now, Mrs. Harmon’s ashes lie unceremoniously in a box in her daughter’s condominium.[21] She has yet to have a proper funeral, memorial service, or burial.[22] Only time will tell whether she will be laid to rest with the honor that her dedicated service deserves.

[1] J.D. expected May 2017.
[2] Frederick N. Rasmussen, Elaine D. Harmon, Baltimore Sun (May 2, 2015), http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/obituaries/bs-md-ob-elaine-harmon-20150501-story.html.
[3] Id.
[4] Id.
[5] Michael S. Schmidt, Female Pilot Unit Gains Support in Congress for Right to Arlington Burials, N.Y. Times (Feb. 27, 2016), http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/28/us/
politics/female-pilot-unit-gains-support-in-congress-for-right-to-arlington-burials.html.
[6] Id.
[7] Id.
[8] Id.
[9] Press Release, U.S. Rep. Martha McSally, U.S. Rep. McSally Bill to Reinstate WASPS in Arlington Passes Committee (Feb. 25, 2016) (available at https://mcsally.house.gov/
media-center/press-releases/us-rep-mcsally-bill-reinstate-wasps-arlington-passes-committee).
[10] Id.
[11] Id.
[12] Id.
[13] Schmidt, supra note 5.
[14] Id.
[15] Id.
[16] Id.
[17] Press Release, U.S. Rep. Martha McSally, supra note 9.
[18] Id.
[19] Id.
[20] Id.
[21] Schmidt, supra note 5.
[22] Id.
*Featured image by Minnesota National Guard, licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.