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Granddaughter Successfully Lobbies Congress

Barbara A. Schmitz

July 29, 2016 - Erin Miller is one dedicated granddaughter.

So when her grandmother, Elaine Harmon, died in 2015 and left behind instructions to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery, she set about to make it happen.

Her grandmother was a Women Airforce Service Pilot during World War II, entering the program in March 1944 after graduating from the University of Maryland College Park where she learned to fly. 

But what Miller soon discovered is that her grandmother and other women of WASP were not eligible for inurnment at Arlington National Cemetery after the Army in 2015 reversed an earlier decision. 

Although the women entered into military service, they were considered civilians. A bill to make them part of the military as promised failed by 19 votes in 1944, Miller said. A 1977 bill gave them military veteran recognition by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. But Arlington National Cemetery is run by the Department of Army. In 2015, the Department of Army concluded that the women of WASP did not provide active duty service, and therefore were not eligible to be placed at Arlington. 

Frustrated, on Veteran’s Day Miller posted about the gender discriminations facing the women of WASP on Facebook. She quickly found that it made people mad.

So Miller started contacting legislators and started a grassroots campaign that evolved into a national lobbying campaign. She also started a petition online. 

“I used social media to let people know what was going on, did dozens of media interviews, and visited 160 offices in Congress to ask for support,” Miller said. “I wrote op-eds and blogposts, managed a network of supporters, and worked with the Change.org staff who were assigned to our petition.”

Her work and the work of others started catching peoples’ attention. The petition received 170,000 signatures, putting it in the top .05 percent of all its petitions, she said.

Then U.S. Rep. Martha McSally came forward and introduced legislation. A retired U.S. Air Force colonel who was the first female to fly in combat for the U.S. military, McSally was also a friend to WASP Dawn Seymour. The bill, HR 4336, amended the 1977 law to make WASP service eligible at Arlington for inurnment at the columbarium. Shortly, Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland and Jodi Ernst of Iowa sponsored a similar bill, S 2437, in the Senate. The bills unanimously passed, and on May 20, President Obama signed it into law.

“I found out about it passing from a tweet,” Miller said, who now has a tattoo of the bill number on her arm to commemorate its passing.

WASP Seymour and WASP Shutsy Reynolds were at Miller’s presentation on Friday, and they said they are thankful for the work she did.

“All we have been after these many years is for equal treatment for our service,” Seymour said. “We were promised military rights and Congress never followed through.”

Miller thanked all the people, as well as organizations like EAA, AOPA, the Ninety-nines Inc., Women in Aviation, and others for backing the bill. She is writing a book about this that will likely be called The Road to Arlington.

Harmon’s funeral will be held at Arlington in September.

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