As published in Sioux City Journal
May 28 2016
By Senator Joni Ernst
Back in the 1940s, more than a thousand female pioneers of aviation forged a new way forward for women in the military.
The WASP, also known as the Women Airforce Service Pilots, were a group of revolutionary women who proudly served our country during the 1940s. On the heels of Pearl Harbor, these female trailblazers bucked the status quo and made tremendous sacrifices to join a ground-breaking flight training program for women. During World War II, the WASP flew countless U.S. Army Air Force planes for non-combat service missions to free up their male counterparts for combat duty. In fact, Iowa was, at one time or another, home to at least 25 courageous WASP.
Unfortunately, when the program disbanded in December 1944, records of the WASP were sealed, classified and stored away for decades in government archives.
The WASP willingly put their lives on the line, including 38 women who died in service to our great country, such as Beverly Moses, who was born in Des Moines, and Gleanna Roberts, who grew up near Iowa City.
The surviving women returned home, and as Margaret Phelan Taylor, a WASP who grew up on a farm in Emmetsburg, made clear, these women did not expect anything in return for their service. She stated: "We were children of the Depression. It was root hog or die. You had to take care of yourself. Nobody owed us anything."
While the WASP were eventually granted veteran status in 1977, it was not until 2002 that the Army allowed these women to have their ashes placed in Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors.
However, a policy change in 2015 by then-Secretary of the Army John McHugh reversed course and revoked the eligibility of the WASP to be laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery. The Army ruled that these courageous women never should have been permitted entry in the first place.
This inexplicable change seemed unfounded to a bipartisan group of female lawmakers, which is why earlier this year I introduced legislation, along with Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), Rep. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) and Rep. Susan Davis (D-Calif.), to restore the rights of these female pioneers of military aviation.
As I told Defense Secretary Ash Carter: “It is a travesty that these women, who are pioneers in military aviation, had the honor of having their ashes inurned at Arlington National Cemetery revoked last year, during the same year that historically you opened up positions that had been previously closed in combat to women.”
It was a glaring contradiction.
Working together, our bipartisan legislation passed the House and the Senate earlier this month. Then, about a week ago, President Obama signed this important measure into law.
As the WASP program concluded, Director Jacqueline Cochran rightly stated that “what the WASP have done is without precedent in the history of the world.”
Indeed. These women deserve to be celebrated and remembered by all. They were role models for women in the military like me and proved their strength and fortitude in the missions they carried out.
As Memorial Day approaches, I am grateful that this basic honor was restored for these remarkable women, and their families, so that the WASP may rest in peace at Arlington National Cemetery.
Republican Joni Ernst represents Iowa in the United States Senate.