Arlington National Cemetery is the final resting place for more than 400,000 active duty service members, veterans, and their families. Until recently, the cemetery excluded the female pilots who served during WWII. In May of 2016, that changed.
Arlington National Military Cemeteries consists of Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia, and Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Home National Cemetery in Washington D.C. (both of which are under the jurisdiction of the Department of the Army). The Secretary of the Army consolidated authorities and created the Executive Director position to effectively and efficiently develop, operate, manage, and administer the program.
Brigadier General Montgomery C. Meigs established Arlington National Cemetery on June 15, 1864. He commanded the garrison at Arlington House. One of the first monuments in the cemetery was a stone and masonry burial vault in the rose garden that was 20 feet wide and 10 feet deep. It contained the remains of 1,800 Bull run casualties and was among the first monuments to Union dead. Meigs himself was later buried in the cemetery. His wife, father, and son, are also buried there.
During WWII, Congress voted against a bill that would have granted the female pilots who flew in WWII military status. The Army refused to pay to send home the bodies of 38 female pilots who died during their service. It wasn’t until 1977 that the Women Airforce Service Pilots (also called WASPs) were recognized as veterans. It took until 2010 for them to be awarded the Congressional Gold Medal.
The WASPs were once allowed to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Those burials took place between 2002 and 2015. John McHugh was Army Secretary in 2015, and he ruled that female WWII pilots should never have been allowed to be buried at Arlington. Part of his reasoning may have been because Arlington Cemetery is run by the Army and not by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
In 2016, Senator Barbara A. Mikulski (a Democrat who represents Maryland) introduced a bill that would allow the WASPs to be buried in Arlington. Mikulski is the longest-serving woman in Congress. Representative Martha McSally (a Republican who represents Arizona) introduced that same bill in the House of Representatives. McSally is a retired Air Force colonel.
The bill passed through Congress. President Barack Obama signed the bill into law. As a result, the law allows the ashes of women who flew in the Women Airforce Service Pilots program to be laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery.
Image by Jim Bowen on Flickr.
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