Air Force fighter pilot-turned-congresswoman Martha McSally is in a dogfight for a generation of female aviators who paved the runway for her, but not even the president can help, according to a top Pentagon official.
The Arizona Republican, who became the first female fighter pilot in U.S. history to fly in combat and command a fighter squadron, is battling to win a place in Arlington National Cemetery for some 1,000 women who flew non-combat missions during World War II. At a House hearing Wednesday, she pressed the acting secretary of the U.S. Army on why President Obama has not taken action on behalf of the heroines known as the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs).
"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.
Patrick Murphy, who is in charge of the branch while the nomination of Eric Fanning is being considered, said Obama is indeed powerless to open up the graveyard of American heroes to the women.
"I know it is not the answer you want to hear, but that is the answer," Murphy said.
Murphy testified that a 1977 law passed by Congress was re-interpreted by the Army last year as not allowing burial of WASP pilots at Arlington, even though they had been admitted previously. Only an act of Congress can change it now, he said.
"I can't change it unilaterally, [the defense secretary] can't change it unilaterally, the commander-in-chief can't," Murphy said.
The development was the latest twist in the controversy that began last year when the Army denied space in the cemetery to the female veterans who trained pilots and ferried combat aircraft from 1942-44. Although they were not considered active-duty military, they have since been honored with the Congressional Gold Medal, as well as veterans benefits.
Thirty-eight WASPs died during their service.
McSally is already working on the legislation Murphy said would be required to make the Army do an about-face. The retired colonel has sponsored the WASP Arlington Inurnment Restoration (WASP AIR) Act, which also has the endorsement of the Military Officers Association of America, the Air Force Association, the Distinguished Flying Cross Society, the Service Women's Action Network, the Women in International Service (WIIS) and the National Women's Law Center.
"At a time when we are opening all positions to women, the Army is closing Arlington to the pioneers who paved the way for pilots like me and all women to serve in uniform," McSally said in a statement. "These women fought, and died, in service to their country. They trained in the military style: sleeping on metal cots, marching and living under military discipline. They deserve the full honors we give our war heroes, and I'll continue to fight until they get them."
The issue was initially raised by the family of Elaine Harmon, a former WASP, who passed away in April 2015. When the family sought an Arlington burial, it was denied by the Army.
"We appreciate Rep. McSally taking the lead on this issue to right this injustice for military trailblazers who were ahead of their time," said Whitney Miller, granddaughter of Elaine Harmon. "This was our grandmother's last wish and we want to see this through. Not only was she a national hero, she was our family's hero."
The WASP unit was created in 1942 by Gen. Henry "Hap" Arnold, when the Air Force was part of the Army. Arnold intended to grant members full military status, though Congress never approved the plan. In 1977, Congress passed legislation retroactively granting active-duty status to WASP pilots for the purposes of all laws administered by Veterans Affairs. In 2009, Congress awarded the WASPs the Congressional Gold Medal.
Arlington National Cemetery, which is run by the Army, in 2002 approved WASP pilots for military honors and inurnment. But in March 2015, then-Secretary of the Army John McHugh reversed the decision based on a re-interpretation of the 1977 law.
McSally, an A-10 Thunderbolt II pilot who flew combat missions over Iraq, said she will continue to press the Obama administration for a policy change.
Her bill is now supported by 177 fellow lawmakers and was passed by House committee last month, according to Stars and Stripes. Senators 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.