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Finally at peace: the fight to lay my grandmother to rest at Arlington

Op-ed: It took an act of Congress, but my grandmother is now at peace at Arlington National Cemetery.

My grandmother, Elaine Harmon, was a member of the Women Airforce Service Pilots — the WASP — who flew planes during World War II. The WASP were not recognized as part of the Army Air Corps at the time of their service largely because of discrimination against women pilots. In 1977, public law 95-202 was passed finally granting the WASP and other groups retroactive recognition as veterans.

Yet the women still struggled for full acknowledgment, even in death. Prior to 2002, there were no military honors provided for WASP funerals at Arlington National Cemetery. My grandmother thought it was shameful that her fellow trailblazing pilots were treated with such disrespect, but after decades of fighting to be recognized, she had grown accustomed to inconsistent treatment within the federal government.

In 2002, Irene Englund, another member of the WASP, received military honors at Arlington National Cemetery after a campaign by her daughter Julie who successfully argued that her mother was a veteran who had a right to military honors (the right to be buried alongside her veteran husband was without question). My grandmother attended Irene Englund's funeral, and she, along with the remaining WASP and their families, believed the issue had been settled.

On April 21, 2015, my grandmother passed away after several years of fighting breast cancer. Her last request was to have her ashes placed at the Columbarium at Arlington National Cemetery. She wanted a simple military funeral ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery and perhaps a small gathering at the Women in Military Service to America Memorial, of which she had been a charter member. My grandfather did not serve in the military during his lifetime due to a health condition, so my family was in the unusual position of applying for inurnment at Arlington National Cemetery for my grandmother based on her own merits, not as a military spouse.

We thought there would be no issues surrounding my grandmother's application, given Julie Englund's earlier fight. We were surprised to learn that a month earlier, then Secretary of the Army John McHugh had released a memo claiming that members of the WASP and the other groups covered by public law 95-202, such as the Merchant Marines of World War II, were no longer eligible to have their ashes inurned at Arlington National Cemetery according to a legal review. Arlington National Cemetery denied our application for my grandmother based on that memo.

Because the law from 1977 granting the WASP retroactive veteran status specified recognition only under what we now call the Department of Veterans Affairs, which runs 135 national cemeteries, and not under any other agency such as the Department of the Army, which runs Arlington National Cemetery, the Army had a solid legal argument to deny our application for my grandmother. It was clear that the original law needed to be amended to ensure equal application of veterans recognition for the WASP across these government agencies.

Unfortunately, amending the law meant going through a gridlocked Congress with a long agenda of stagnating efforts, from funding for Zika research to the confirmation hearing for a Supreme Court nominee. Most Americans probably don't remember what it looks like when Congress does its job.

To our family's surprise, Congress rallied around a bill introduced by Arizona Republican Martha McSally to amend the original law and ensure that WASP were eligible for inurnment at Arlington National Cemetery. We held my grandmother out as a specific beneficiary of this legislation and would not accept a case-by-case exception from the Army to get her into Arlington sooner. We wanted to ensure that all the WASP were recognized as equal, even if most did not want to be at Arlington after they took their final flight.

It was frustrating to wait as the bill wound its way through the legislative process. Even in record time by congressional standards at 20 weeks, watching my mom stress about whether her own mother would be granted her final request grew increasingly difficult. Being native to the Washington, D.C., suburbs, my family was all too aware of the bizarre circumstances that can derail even the simplest legislation. Representative McSally and her staff maintained this bill as a priority, knowing that our family was waiting to give a proper resting place to my grandmother. Because of their diligence, I never doubted that the bill would pass.

On Sept. 7, 2016, my grandmother was laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery in a ceremony that was much bigger than she likely envisioned: about 200 guests, dozens of reporters, three fellow WASP, and a couple members of Congress. This was followed by a tribute to her and the other ladies of the WASP at the Women in Military Service to America Memorial with speakers from our family, from the Air Force and from Congress. Representative Martha McSally was there, as she said she would be when she promised to fix this problem on Jan. 6.

As I started reading through the media articles written about that day, one photo stood out to me. It's of my mother hugging Representative McSally. The look of pride and gratitude on my mom's face says it all. It took 505 days from my grandmother's death and an act of Congress, but she is now at peace at Arlington National Cemetery.

Erin Miller led her family's campaign to ensure that her grandmother, Elaine D. Harmon, a member of the WASP was granted her final wish to be laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery. Her email is erinmiller@gmail.com; Twitter: @millerlawmd.

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