Female pilots of World War II (like my grandmother) finally receive the honor they deserve
There’s no shortage of critical takes on all of the work Congress doesn’t do. From budget bills to Supreme Court appointments, there’s a reason why hundreds of thousands of Americans tweet at our legislators with the hashtag #SenateDoYourJob. For the Women Air Force Service Pilots of World War II, recognition of their sacrifices remained a job left undone for 72 years.
And now, with President Obama’s action signing HR 4336 into law on May 20, that recognition has come.
My grandmother, Elaine Harmon, served as a member of the WASP with over a thousand other women between 1942 and 1944. These fearless femmes took on domestic flying and pilot training duties under the auspices of the Department of the Army to increase the number of available male combat pilots for overseas combat missions. It wasn’t easy. Dozens were injured. 38 women died in service to their country.
The WASP served honorably, and for their service Congress passed a 1977 law granting them limited veteran status with the Department of Veterans Affairs. In 2010, they received the Congressional Gold Medal. But when my grandmother passed in 2015, the Department of the Army denied her - and all WASP - burial honors at Arlington National Cemetery. They were veterans, the Army admitted, but only with the Department of Veterans Affairs. Their official status remained second class.
It wasn’t my first choice to seek Congressional action. I shared the cynicism of many in America about our largest legislative body. Congress was where good ideas went to die. So I turned to regular people across the country to amplify our voice.
July 1, 2009: President Obama signS S.614, a bill to award a Congressional Gold Medal to the Women Airforce Service Pilots, in the Oval Office. At second left is WASP pilot Elaine Danforth Harmon. (The White House)
After several weeks of promoting a petition on Change.org, the ground began to shift. Local and national print and broadcast media reached out to hear my grandmother’s story. What started as a campaign to right one wrong has become something much larger. It isn’t just my story anymore. Our story - and petition - started a national conversation that wouldn’t have been possible without online social activism.
Representative Martha McSally of Arizona, a retired Air Force Colonel, was one of the first to hear our collective voice. After hearing the story of Elaine Harmon and the WASP veterans, McSally stepped forward to present a legislative solution: an amendment to the 1977 law that would grant full veteran status to the WASP.
I’d seen plenty of legislation fail before, but I’d never lobbied for policy reform with an army of supporters empowered by social media. I visited Congress directly, making weekly trips to Washington and standing in offices until staffers spoke to me about our petition and the McSally Amendment. Armed with support from Change.org and more than 178,000 signatures on our petition, I prepared for a long fight.
Despite public perception of Congress as polarized beyond repair, I found countless allies in both political parties. Almost every office I visited offered time to discuss the issue. Some offices co-sponsored our bill on the spot.
More than I expected, members of Congress were moved by the personal narrative of the WASP. #SenateDoYourJob takes on a different meaning when you’re waiting to bury a loved one. It may take the pressure of nearly 200,000 voices to move Congress to action, but their movement is a positive sign for our democratic process.
Thanks to the efforts of Rep. McSally and her staff, HR 4336 passed unanimously in the House of Representatives on March 22, 2016, only eleven weeks after she promised to fix the problem. Faced with growing legislative and media buzz, Acting Secretary of the Army Patrick Murphy took the unprecedented step of reversing the Army’s position.
Unanimity followed in the Senate, where partisanship took a rare pause in favor of honoring American heroes. 19 weeks from its debut in Congress, the bill that once seemed so implausible a year ago is a law. After decades fighting for equal respect, my grandmother - and all WASP - will have the full honors they deserve.
After seven decades with their service hidden in shadows and veterans in all but name, the United States will finally honor the contributions of these brave women warriors. The time has finally come.
Erin Miller, Esq. is the granddaughter of Elaine Danforth Harmon, one of the Women Air Force Service Pilots (WASP) who served between 1942 and 1944.