SILVER SPRING, Md. — Shortly after Elaine D. Harmon died in April at 95, her family found a letter in a fireproof box with explicit instructions: She wanted her ashes placed at Arlington National Cemetery.
"Even if there are no ashes left, I would like an empty urn placed at Arlington," wrote Harmon, who had been part of a 1,000-women unit during World War II that transported military planes and bombers, and trained men to fly them.
But 10 months later, Harmon has not had a funeral, memorial service or burial. A large black box of her ashes sits on a shelf above some blouses and sweaters in her daughter's bedroom closet in a condominium in this Washington suburb.
Harmon's family has delayed laying her to rest because the Army, which oversees Arlington National Cemetery, says her wartime unit — known as the WASPs, shorthand for Women Airforce Service Pilots — was not technically part of the military. Thus, the Army ruled, her ashes cannot be placed in a columbarium there. (The Army also argues that the cemetery — where more than 400,000 veterans, their spouses and others are buried — is running out of space for graves and urns.)
Some members of Congress and veterans are outraged by the Army's decision, saying it is a gross contradiction.
According to Army rules for the cemetery, had Harmon been married to a veteran already laid to rest at Arlington, her request would be approved, even if she had never served in a military unit. And several foreigners are buried in Arlington, including a German prisoner of war from World War II who died in U.S. custody.
"Think of the irony that at the same time the Pentagon is opening up all missions to men and women in the military they are closing the door to the women who were pioneers," said Rep. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., referring to Defense Secretary Ash Carter's decision last year to open combat roles to women.
McSally, who was the Air Force's first female fighter pilot to fly in combat and first woman to command a fighter squadron, has introduced legislation that would allow the WASPs to be buried at Arlington. She said only about 100 women from the unit were still alive, and that just two had requested they be laid to rest at the cemetery.
"If you're not going to do the right thing, we're going to make it happen," McSally said.
The Army said an internal legal review last year concluded that a technicality in legislation passed in 1977 prevented the WASPs from being buried at Arlington. The bill designated the women as active duty for the purposes of Department of Veterans Affairs benefits. But that legislation did not give them status with the armed services and so did not confer the right to be buried at Arlington.
"Based upon current demand and capacity, Arlington will exhaust interment and inurnment space for any active-duty service member or veteran in the next 20 years, by the mid-2030s," the Army said in a statement. "As stewards of these hallowed grounds we remain committed to maintaining Arlington as an active cemetery for as long as possible to continue to honor and serve our nation's military heroes."
In early January, Harmon's daughter Terry and granddaughter Erin were scheduled to appear on Fox News' On the Record With Greta Van Susteren. But at the last minute, a producer said their segment had been canceled for McSally to discuss the matter as a veteran and member of Congress.
Harmon's daughter and granddaughter had never been in contact with McSally and were surprised. They saw McSally's service online, and they eagerly waited to watch the segment. On the show, McSally announced her legislation plans.
McSally said she had a long-standing bond with the WASPs. When she was climbing the ranks as a pilot, a group of WASPs in Arizona sought her out.
"Very few people could relate to what I was going through," McSally said in a telephone interview.
"I would meet with them from time to time ... and they would tell me stories about what they went through, and it would get me motivated to fight another day. I loved these women, and I wouldn't be where I am today and have the opportunities I've had without them helping me break through the glass ceiling."
Support has built for the legislation, which has more than 10 co-sponsors. On Thursday, the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs sent the bill to the House floor.