Righting a Wrong
When Elaine Harmon passed away in April 2015, she left behind a letter expressing her desire to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Harmon served in World War II with the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP), one of approximately 1,000 women who flew planes for transport and training during the war. Though the WASPs were classified as civilians, in 1977 they won their fight to obtain limited veterans status. So it was a surprise to Harmon’s family when Arlington denied its request to have her ashes placed there.
Luckily, Harmon’s surviving relatives knew a good lawyer.
“My grandmother felt [Arlington] is a memorial to those who served in the military, a place where not just families but lots of tourists go, too,” says Harmon’s granddaughter Erin Miller ’13. “She felt it was important for the WASPs to be represented there of their own merit, so people knew their history and the importance of their service.”
Miller discovered that though WASPs had previously had ashes placed at Arlington, in 2015 then-U.S. Army Secretary John McHugh pointed out that because of their limited status, WASPs were only entitled to be buried in cemeteries run by the Department of Veterans Affairs, not those under the Department of the Army, like Arlington. With that, Arlington closed its doors to WASPs and their families.
Miller knew the only recourse was to push forward legislation that would close the legal loophole holding up her grandmother’s inurnment. Miller reached out to Maryland’s U.S. Senator Barbara Mikulski—who led a separate effort in 2009 to have the WASPs granted the Congressional Gold Medal—and created a media campaign to draw attention to the issue. Mikulski, along with Arizona Representative Martha McSally and other supporters, passed legislation that amended the 1977 law so that anyone with limited status could have ashes inurned at Arlington National Cemetery. Miller herself lobbied more than 150 members of Congress. She states that her law school education was invaluable to her experience, particularly her classes in legal research and oral advocacy.
“I did a lot of research looking at the U.S. code and different titles and how they interact with each other, as well as a lot of oral advocacy, because I was in congressional offices talking to staff members and senators and members of Congress to advocate for my position and to explain the law,” she states.
The bill was introduced in January 2016 and signed into law by President Obama on May 20, 2016. Miller’s work reached its own appropriate close; her family finally laid Elaine Harmon to rest
on September 7, 2016, in Arlington National Cemetery.