AAUW Member Fights for Women Pilots’ Honors at Arlington National CemeteryMay 24, 2016
“She was passionate and not afraid to do anything. This is a woman who went bungee jumping at 75 because they offered free jumps to senior citizens.”
That’s the memory Linda Harmon, co-president of the AAUW Atlantic County (NJ) Branch, shared about her mother-in-law, Elaine Harmon. Elaine was a proud mother and grandmother who was also a member of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP), a group of women who flew thousands of noncombat missions during World War II.
Elaine and her fellow female aviators were considered civilians during the war, but federal law granted them veteran status in 1977. They were even awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 2009. They had been eligible since 2002 to have their ashes rest at Arlington National Cemetery with military honors. But this changed in March 2015, when the U.S. Army revoked WASP members’ rights to be laid to rest at the hallowed grounds, citing limited space.
The issue of WASP members’ rejection from Arlington National Cemetery was brought to the nation’s attention by Elaine’s family after she passed away in April 2015. When the family sought military honors for her at Arlington, they were denied by the Army.
“They said it would take an act of Congress to change it, and well, they messed with the wrong family. There are only 100 WASP members left, and some want that option to be buried at the national cemetery,” said Harmon.
The Harmons found supporters in Sens. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) and Joni Ernst (R-IA) along with Reps. Martha McSally (R-AZ) (a former combat pilot herself) and Susan Davis (D-CA), who introduced the Women Airforce Service Pilots Arlington Inurnment Restoration (WASP AIR) Act. The legislation restores the eligibility of these female pilots for inurnment at Arlington National Cemetery. The bill passed both chambers unanimously with bipartisan support.
AAUW members from around the country sent in thousands of messages through the AAUW Action Network to their elected officials, urging them to honor these amazing women by allowing them rightful entry to Arlington. AAUW has actively worked on issues important to women in the military for many years, even boasting a WASP as one of our own remarkable members. AAUW CEO Linda Hallman voiced AAUW’s support for the cause in a letter to the Washington Post saying, “These women helped test-fly repaired aircraft, trained male pilots, and towed targets at which other pilots practiced firing live ammunition. They deserve to be laid to rest in one of our nation’s most prominent cemeteries with their fellow patriots.”
Harmon expressed immense gratitude to AAUW and its membership for joining her family’s fight urging Congress and the president to take action. “With AAUW, I get a sense that yes, we can make a difference. It made me believe in the power of a woman’s voice. We can change the world, and we will,” said Harmon.
Finally, after a 20-week fight led by the Harmon family, President Barack Obama gave the WASP veterans the hard-earned recognition they deserve by signing the inurnment bill into law, just in time for Memorial Day. AAUW and its members were proud to be a part of honoring these amazing women and recognizing them for the trails they blazed for generations to come.
AAUW thanks Linda Harmon for telling her story and for providing the photos for this piece. Many thanks also to the entire Harmon family for their hard work and dedication to right this wrong and to Elaine Harmon and her fellow WASP members for their courage and bravery in the face of adversity.
**All photos courtesy of the Harmon family.
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Servicewomen will earn the fair pay, promotions, and recognition they deserve for work that they have already been doing.
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