US World War II women pilots now fight for military burial honor

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Female World War II Pilots, Nation's Best Kept Secret

WASHINGTON, March 16 (Reuters) - U.S. lawmakers railed at the military on Wednesday over its refusal to let women pilots from World War Two be buried at Arlington National Cemetery, saying it was unjust to deny those veterans that honor because of their gender.

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"These women were pioneers. These women were heroes," said Republican Representative Martha McSally, who has been leading the effort to change policy at the country's best-known military cemetery.

"They paved the way for people like me," said McSally, the first woman U.S. Air Force pilot to fly combat missions.

About 1,000 women served as Women's Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPs, during World War Two. They performed training and transport missions in the United States so male pilots could be sent overseas.

See images of Arlington National Cemetery:

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US World War II women pilots now fight for military burial honor
Widow Alexandra McClintock holds her son Declan during a burial service for her husband, U.S. Army Sergeant First Class Matthew McClintock, who was killed in action in January at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia March 7, 2016. REUTERS/Gary Cameron
ARLINGTON, VA - JANUARY 14: Crystal Jordan stands in front of a head stone for 2nd Lieutenant Samuel Gordon Leftenant following a memorial service for Samuel at Arlington National Cemetery on Thursday January 14, 2016 in Arlington, VA. Samuel was a Tuskegee Airman in World War II. Designated missing in action, his remains have not been identified. (Photo by Matt McClain/ The Washington Post via Getty Images)
ARLINGTON, VA - AUGUST 14: An American flag is ready to be folded over the casket of U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Harold J. Greene during a full honors funeral service at Arlington National Cemetery, August 14, 2014 in Washington, DC. Greene was shot and killed as he visited Afghanistan's national military academy in Kabul, Afghanistan. He is the highest ranking Army officer killed in combat since the Vietnam War. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
ARLINGTON, VA - JANUARY 14: A caisson arrives followed by family members for a memorial service for 2nd Lieutenant Samuel Gordon Leftenant at Arlington National Cemetery on Thursday January 14, 2016 in Arlington, VA. Samuel was a Tuskegee Airman in World War II. Designated missing in action, his remains have not been identified. (Photo by Matt McClain/ The Washington Post via Getty Images)
ARLINGTON, VA - DECEMBER 12: A young boy studies an inscription on a headstone as thousands of volunteers come to participate in Wreath Across America, to lay wreaths on each grave in Arlington National Cemetery, on December, 12, 2015 in Arlington, VA. (Photo by Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Early morning sun cuts through fog before the start of the 2015 National Wreaths Across America event at Arlington National Cemetery December 12, 2015 in Arlington, VA. More than 50,000 volunteers helped to place remembrance wreaths on 230,000 gravestones at Arlington on Saturday. AFP PHOTO/MOLLY RILEY / AFP / MOLLY RILEY (Photo credit should read MOLLY RILEY/AFP/Getty Images)
ARLINGTON, VA - AUGUST 11: Maj. Gen. Steven Salazar (L) presents a U.S. flag to Barbara Arizmendez, wife of Staff Sergeant Marc Arizmendez, during his funeral August 11, 2010 at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia. Marc Arizmendez was killed July 6 in Qalat, Afghanistan, when his vehicle was bombed. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, USA - NOVEMBER 11: Flowers are placed at a tombstone on Veterans Day at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, USA on November 11, 2015. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Body of Lance Cpl Kevin Lucas arrives outside Arlington National Cemetery, Tuesday, June 6, 2006. Lucas was escorted by motocycle riding members of the Patriot Brigade. His funeral was picketed by the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas led by pastor Fred Phelps, June 6, 2006. The Phelps group has been picketing military funerals across country, saying that American troop deaths are God's punishment for America's embrace of homosexuality. (Photo by Bill Auth/MCT/MCT via Getty Images)
ARLINGTON, VA Four-year-old Sophia Savage wanders among the tombstones as her mom Marian, left, and aunt Grace Wozniak pose for a portrait during a visit to the gravesite for their grandfather Retired Army Col. Andrew DeGraff at Arlington Cemetery in Virginia, on Wednesday, April 1, 2009. DeGraff's body was allegedly left in a casket on rack for several months at the National Funeral Home at National Memorial Park in the Falls Church section of Fairfax County. The funeral home is owned by Texas-based Service Corporation International and handles embalming and other funeral preparations for six DC area funeral homes that are owned by SCI. (Photo by Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post/Getty Images)
Arlington National Cemetery funeral of Marine Lance Cpl. Kevin A. Lucas. Flag presented to parents, Sandra and Kevin. The burial was picketed by the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas led by pastor Fred Phelps, June 6, 2006. The Phelps group has been picketing military funerals across country, saying that American troop deaths are God's punishment for America's embrace of homosexuality. (Photo by Chuck Kennedy/MCT/MCT via Getty Images)
ARLINGTON, VA - MAY 25: A member of the honor guard stands as the motorcade carrying U.S. President Barack Obama arrives for a Memorial Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery May 25, 2015 in Arlington, Virginia. Obama, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff U.S. Army General Martin Dempsey and U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter honored fallen soldiers at Arlington on this Memorial Day. (Photo by Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images)
Members of the 3rd US Infinity Regiment (The Old Guard) place American flags at the foot of graves in Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia on May 21, 2015, during the annual 'Flags In' ceremony for Memorial Day. AFP PHOTO/ JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
ARLINGTON, VA - JULY 12: Michael J. Frisbie (R) receives condolences from French Army attache Col. Brice Houdet (L) during the burial service for his great uncle, World War I casualty Private First Class Thomas D. Costello at Arlington National Cemetery July 12, 2010 in Arlington, Virginia. Costello's remains, missing for almost 90 years were located in September 2006. Costello's remains, missing for almost 90 years were located at an excavation site in September 2006 in France and were identified as Costello using forensic tools. On September 16, 1918 Costello's unit encountered heavy enemy artillery and machine gun fire near Jaulny, France, his body was buried in a wooded area known as Bois de Bonvaux. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
ARLINGTON, VA - JANUARY 21: Before snow picture of the west side of Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, VA on January 21, 2016. (Photo by Linda Davidson / The Washington Post via Getty Images)
402403 05: Air Force Chief of Staff, Gen. John P. Jumper (L), offers condolences to Senior Airmen Jason Cunninghams wife Theresa (C) during her husbands funeral March 14, 2002 at Arlington National Cemetery, VA. Cunningham, a para-rescuer, was killed in action March 4, 2002 while supporting Operation Anaconda in Afghanistan. (Photo by Mark D. Smith/USAF/Getty Images)
Members of the 3rd US Infinity Regiment (The Old Guard) place American flags at the foot of graves in Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia on May 21, 2015, during the annual 'Flags In' ceremony for Memorial Day. AFP PHOTO/ JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
ARLINGTON, VA - AUGUST 23: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen (L) and his wife, Deborah Mullen, arrive to pay their respects to the family of U.S. Air Force Captain David Anthony Wisniewski at his burial service at Arlington National Cemetery August 23, 2010 in Arlington, Virginia. Originally from Moville, Iowa, the Air Force captain, 31, was the pilot of a Black Hawk helicopter that was shot down during a rescue mission in Afghanistan on June 9 and died of his injuries on July 2. Wisniewski is credited with saving more than 240 soldiers in seven tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, 40 of which were saved in his final rescue mission in June. He was awarded the Purple Heart on June 23. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
ARLINGTON, VA - MAY 21: American flags placed by members of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment at the graves of U.S. soldiers buried at Arlington National Cemetery in preparation for Memorial Day are seen May 21, 2015 in Arlington, Virginia. 'Flags-In' has become an annual ceremony since the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard) was designated to be an Army's official ceremonial unit in 1948. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
ARLINGTON, VA - AUGUST 14: Dr. Susan Myers, mourns at the casket of her husband U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Harold J. Greene during a full honors funeral service at Arlington National Cemetery, August 14, 2014 in Washington, DC. Greene was shot and killed as he visited Afghanistan's national military academy in Kabul, Afghanistan. He is the highest ranking Army officer killed in combat since the Vietnam War. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
ARLINGTON, VA - MAY 21: Members of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment place American flags at the graves of U.S. soldiers buried at Arlington National Cemetery, in preparation for Memorial Day May 21, 2015 in Arlington, Virginia. 'Flags-In' has become an annual ceremony since the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard) was designated to be an Army's official ceremonial unit in 1948. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
ARLINGTON, VA - MARCH 15: Susannah Buckles Flanagan, gets emotional during the funeral for her father of Army Corporal Frank Buckles, at Arlington National Cemetery, on March 15, 2011 in Arlington, Virginia. Buckles who was the last verified American veteran of World War I, died on February 27, 2011 at the age of 110. Buckles quit school at the age of 16 and lied to enlist in the U.S. Army, he then traveled across the Atlantic to the European theater on the British liner the Carpathia where he served in England and France, driving ambulances and motorcycles for the Army's 1st Fort Riley Casual Detachment. He will be buried with full military honors today. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
ARLINGTON, VA - APRIL 11: Grave markers inside Arlington National Cemetery on April 11, 2015 in Arlington, Virginia. (Photo By Raymond Boyd/Getty Images)
ARLINGTON, VA - MAY 13: A US Military Honor Guard walk away from the grave of Army Pvt. William Christman, after a wreath laying ceremony as part of Arlington at 150 Celebration on May 13, 2014 in Washington, DC. Pvt. Christman was the first military burial at Arlington 150 years ago today on May 13, 1864. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
ARLINGTON, VA - MAY 13: A US Military Honor Guard walks past the grave of Army Pvt. William Christman, after a wreath laying ceremony as part of Arlington at 150 Celebration on May 13, 2014 in Washington, DC. Pvt. Christman was the first military burial at Arlington 150 years ago today on May 13, 1864. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
ARLINGTON, VA - MAY 13: A US Military Honor Guard participates in a wreath laying ceremony at the grave of Army Pvt. William Christman, as part of Arlington at 150 Celebration on May 13, 2014 in Washington, DC. Pvt. Christman was the first military burial at Arlington 150 years ago today on May 13, 1864. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
ARLINGTON, VA - MAY 13: Jack Lechner. AdministratorArlington National Cemetery lays a wreath at the grave of Army Pvt. William Christman, as part of Arlington at 150 Celebration on May 13, 2014 in Washington, DC. Pvt. Christman was the first military burial at Arlington 150 years ago today on May 13, 1864. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
ARLINGTON, VA- APRIL 25: Body bearers with the United States Navy Ceremonial Guard carry the casket during the memorial service for United States Navy Master-at-Arms 2nd Class Mark A. Mayo at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia on April 25, 2014. Mayo was killed during a shooting incident at Naval Station Norfolk Monday, Mar. 24. Mayo was assigned to Naval Security Forces, Naval Station Norfolk. Mayo stepped in to save a shipmate on the USS Mahan two weeks ago. He was shot to death while protecting her from a civilian who had boarded the ship and disarmed the Petty Officer on watch. Naval security forces then shot and killed the civilian shooter. (Photo by Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
ARLINGTON, VA - MAY 13: Decendants participate in a wreath layinmg ceremony at the grave of Army Pvt. William Christman, as part of Arlington at 150 Celebration on May 13, 2014 in Washington, DC. Pvt. Christman was the first military burial at Arlington 150 years ago today on May 13, 1864. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
ARLINGTON, VA - APRIL 11: Grave markers inside Arlington National Cemetery on April 11, 2015 in Arlington, Virginia. (Photo By Raymond Boyd/Getty Images)
ARLINGTON, VA - DECEMBER 27: U.S. Marine Corps Funeral Director at the Marine Barracks in Washington, DC, Gunnery Sgt. Charles B. Peoples (R) greets mother Pamela Alexander (L) of Marine Corps Staff Sergeant Vincent J. Bell as father James Bell III (2nd L) looks on during his funeral December 27, 2011 at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia. Bell, an artilleryman for the 2nd Battalion of the 11th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, 1st Marine Expeditionary Force based in Camp Pendleton, California, was killed by an improvised explosive device explosion while he was on foot patrol in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, during his fifth deployment in ten years with the Marine Corps. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
ARLINGTON, VA - JULY 20: A man uses a machine among rows of graves as landscape professionals volunteer their time to help beautify more than 200 acres at Arlington National Cemetery as part of a 'Renewal and Remembrance' event July 20, 2015 in Arlington, Virginia. Over 400 volunteer landscape professionals worked to improve over a quarter of the grounds through mulching, pruning, aerating, planting, limeing, and applying gypsum to the cemetery's grounds. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
398425 03: Shannon Spann, carrying her infant son Jake, follows the coffin containing the body of her husband, CIA agent Johnny 'Mike' Spann, during a full honors funeral December 10, 2001 at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. Spann, an agent of the Central Intelligence Agency who was killed during a prison uprising in Afghanistan, is the first known American combat death in the war on terrorism. (Pool Photo by Robert Trippett/Getty Images)
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Unlike male veterans, they cannot be buried at Arlington, the vast cemetery just outside Washington that is running out of space.

Several dozen were buried there as WASPs before a policy change about a year ago, or because their husbands were buried there, but military authorities now insist that serving in the WASPs was not the same as active duty service.

McSally and other Democratic and Republican members of the House of Representatives and Senate held a news conference on Wednesday to publicize legislation seeking to change the law and said that more than 170,000 people had signed an online petition backing it.

They noted the irony of the military's staunch resistance on this issue, just as the Department of Defense is working to open all combat roles to women.

"We aren't going to be able to change history, but we can change how they're honored," Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar said.

Erin Miller attended the press conference with other members of her family to make the case for her grandmother, Elaine Harmon, a former WASP who trained male pilots, and fought for them to receive veterans' benefits after she retired.

Related: World War II women:

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World War II Women
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US World War II women pilots now fight for military burial honor
World War II, Women from the US Navy, 1942-1943. (Photo by Photo12/UIG/Getty Images)
World War II poster encouraging women to join the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service), a division of the US Navy that enlisted women to help the wartime effort, 1940s. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
'WAVE' (Women Accepted For Voluntary Emergency Service) Jean Selby makes celluloid transparencies for a deep sea diving training film at the Naval Photographic Laboratory, in Anacostia, DC, during World War II, early 1940s. During the war, many 'WAVES' who were illustrators for Walt Disney studios worked for the Navy making training films. (Photo by PhotoQuest/Getty Images)
A member of the Women's Marine Corps Reserve drives a bus at an unidentified United States Marine Air Base during World War II, 1940s. (Photo by US Marine Corps/Interim Archives/Getty Images)
View of women Marines carrying out the repair and reconditioning of fighting airplanes during World War II, 1940s. (Photo by US Marine Corps/Interim Archives/Getty Images)
245472 12: Veterans march down a street during 'The Nation's Parade' November 10, 1995 in New York City. 'The Nation's Parade' is a tribute to the eight million men and women who served the United States, at home and abroad, during World War II. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Liaison)
World War II Women Veterans saluting at ceremony at Veteran's National Cemetery, Los Angeles, California (Photo by Visions of America/UIG via Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - JANUARY 01: Woman From Army Corps Helping A Wounded Soldier In Usa On 1945 (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)
FAIRFAX, VIRGINIA - NOVEMBER 6: An old service photo of 104 year old Mary Saylor, who was one of the first women to sign up for the WAVES in World War II, in her room at the Sunrise at Fair Oaks senior living community on Friday, November 6, 2015 in Fairfax, Virginia. (Family Photo)
The country's oldest living veteran, 110-year-old Emma Didlake,meets with US President Barack Obama in the Oval Office of the White House on July 17, 2015 in Washington, DC. Didlake is a longtime Detroit resident and veteran of the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps(WAAC) during World War II . AFP PHOTO/MANDEL NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
ARLINGTON, VA - AUGUST 14: Artifacts from World War II are on exhibit at the Women In Military Service For America Memorial on August 14, 2012 in Arlington, Virginia. The building is the newest of the war memorials and is located at the entrance of Arlington National Cemetery. (Photo by Joanne Ciccarello/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images)
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Harmon, who died last year at 95, left written instructions that she wanted her ashes to be interred at Arlington. Her family came to McSally for help after her request was refused.

Miller said Harmon would have wanted the honor as recognition for all the WASPs, but not for herself.

"My grandmother would probably say 'I can't believe you're making such a fuss about this,'" she said.

"If these women had not served, we would probably be speaking German right now," Miller said.

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