Another one of those “clean out the basket” stories from while I was away comes to us from the hallowed ground of Arlington National Cemetery. There was a quiet change made to the guidelines for interment there roughly one year ago which impacts a small but rightfully vocal group of citizens and their families. It involves the few remaining members of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (or WASPs) from World War II. It seems that the Army is no longer accepting the remains of the female pilots for burial alongside the Honored Dead who rest there. (Fox News)
The ashes of World War II veteran Elaine Harmon are sitting in a closet in her daughter’s home, where they will remain until they can go to what her family says is her rightful resting place: Arlington National Cemetery.
Harmon piloted aircraft in World War II under a special program, Women Airforce Service Pilots, that flew noncombat missions to free up male pilots for combat. Granted veteran status in 1977, the WASPs have been eligible to have their ashes placed at Arlington with military honors since 2002.
But earlier this year, then-Secretary of the Army John McHugh reversed course and ruled WASPs ineligible.
After Harmon died in April at age 95, her daughter, Terry Harmon, 69, of Silver Spring, Maryland, was dismayed to learn that the Army had moved to exclude WASPs. She said her mother had helped lead the effort to gain recognition for WASPs.
I’m not sure what McHugh was thinking when he made this move, or more to the point, how he explained it at the time. I suppose there could technically be an argument to make saying that the WASPs weren’t officially part of the military and didn’t fly combat missions so they should somehow be classified differently, but it’s a weak and rather offensive one. True, they were defined as a “paramilitary” unit and they were specifically assigned non-combat missions to free up the men to fly in combat. But as has been documented repeatedly, they were granted veteran status nearly forty years ago and clearly aided the war effort in a direct fashion which involved flying military aircraft.
I rather doubt that McHugh was doing this because he’s secretly part of the He Man Woman Hater’s club, though the decision casts him in a very bad light. More likely, he was examining the quickly diminishing available space for burials at Arlington and making a ham handed attempt at finding ways to make the land stretch further. That excuse probably shouldn’t be given too much weight, though, since there are barely 100 WASPs left alive today.
The land issue at Arlington isn’t going to go away no matter how this fracas is resolved. Some relief was achieved last year when space for more than 50,000 additional urns of ashes was added and 27 acres to the north of the current fields was opened up. That new real estate will allow for 30,000 additional graves, which is a great start, but we are still burying an average of 7,000 veterans per year there so it’s far from a permanent solution. Also, just getting those 27 acres was a battle because people were fighting against having some of the old growth trees in the area taken down.
Arlington is an actual problem in search of a solution and I believe one can and must be found. It’s going to take a combination of willingness and sacrifice on the part of both the government and private citizens, but a path can surely be carved outward to extend the grounds of Arlington… not through government fiat, but the good will of a nation willing to offer up the proper honors to our heroes. If we can’t solve this one then the nation may be culturally past the point of no return.