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Army, Lawmaker Clash Over Arlington Exclusion of Female WWII Pilots

More than 1,000 Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) served during World War II, flying more than 60 million miles in every type of military aircraft. (US Air Force)
More than 1,000 Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) served during World War II, flying more than 60 million miles in every type of military aircraft. (US Air Force)

WASHINGTON -- The acting secretary of the Army said Wednesday that not even President Barack Obama has the executive power to allow a group of pioneering female World War II military pilots to be interred at Arlington National Cemetery. Reversing the Army's new exclusion of the Women's Airforce Service Pilots will require legislative action by Congress, said Patrick Murphy, who gave the blunt assessment under questioning in the House by Rep. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., a former combat pilot. "I know it is not the answer you want to hear but that is the answer," Murphy said. It was the latest in a growing controversy over the Army's decision last year to deny above-ground urn space in the cemetery to the female veterans who stepped forward from 1942-1944 to train pilots and ferry combat aircraft. Though not considered active-duty military at the time, the pilots have since received the Congressional Gold Medal, veterans benefits and renown as role models for females serving today. Momentum is now building in the House behind a bill sponsored by McSally to change the Army policy. Murphy testified that a 1977 law passed by Congress allows burial of the WASPs at veterans cemeteries but does not provide them space at Arlington. The Army has been operating under that legal interpretation since last year following a review. It essentially reversed national cemetery policy in place since 2002 that allowed inurnment of the WASPs. "What I'm saying is Congress needs to change what Congress did in 1977," Murphy said. "I can't change it unilaterally, [the defense secretary] can't change it unilaterally, the commander-in-chief can't." Murphy, a former House lawmaker who is acting secretary while the nomination of Eric Fanning is on hold, said the Army can authorize exceptions for the inurnment of individual female pilots and it might be the quickest way around current law. "I am trying to right the wrong," he told McSally. "I agree with you, I support you 100 percent." McSally, an A-10 Thunderbolt II pilot who flew combat mission over Iraq, said the group of female pilots "opened the door for people like me being able to serve" and she wants Arlington inurnment rights for the entire group. "You really believe the commander-in-chief does not have the authority right now -- I mean he makes executive orders all the time -- that he can't say the WASPs are allowed or [grant] a group exception to policy?" McSally said. McSally, who held a news conference Wednesday to rally support, said she will continue to press the Obama administration for a policy change. Meanwhile, her bill is now supported by 177 other lawmakers and was passed by House committee last month, meaning it could be on deck for a floor vote in the future. On the other side of Capitol Hill, Sens. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, and Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., have introduced similar legislation. "We've been in constant discussion with the [House] leadership about plans to bring it to the floor, so we look forward to action on that soon," McSally said.

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