Up until recently, women were facing tremendous adversity in nearly all parts of military life. They still do, but the world is thankfully starting to show respect. Women pilots who served in World War II may now choose to be buried alongside other veterans, presidents, and national heroes at the Arlington National Cemetery.
President Obama has recently signed a law that removes a ruling by Army Secretary John McHugh from allowing Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) to be buried at Arlington. McHugh ruled that WASPs were ineligible for honor. They flew special, non-combat missions between 1942 and 1944. Their work freed up male pilots so that they could fly in combat. A professor at Texas Women’s University said that “It is just mean-spirited for the Secretary of the Army to question [these women’s] value to their country. Again.”
Until 1977, the WASPs actually weren’t even granted veteran status. While they didn’t fly in combat, it didn’t mean they were totally safe either. Nearly 40 women died for their country during those missions. And they weren’t entitled to military honors, to be buried with the US flag, or with any benefit to their families. After their service in 1944, they were sent back to their homes without pay or veteran status. In the 1970’s, President Carter signed legislation that pronounced them as veterans with full burial rights at Arlington.
In spiteful fashion, John McHugh said they were permitted to rest in Arlington by mistake. An explanation was provided by the Army in that the person responsible for allowing this tradition never in fact had the authority to allow female pilots into the cemetery. Some insiders say that this decision happened behind closed doors. It took a following of veterans, family members, and historians to lead an effort in recognizing this bold, selfless group of women.