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

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

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:

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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