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The text of the bill that President Obama signed into law on Friday barely hints at the dramatic story to which it will serve as a bookend. The act requires the Army to provide for the inurnment in Arlington National Cemetery of the cremated remains of “certain persons” whose service in the U.S. military “has been determined to be active service.”
But a hint at who some of those “certain persons” are comes in the bill’s original name: the “Women Airforce Service Pilot Arlington Inurnment Restoration Act.” At issue is the question of whether women who served as Army Air Force pilots during World War II—known as WASPs—are eligible to receive the honor of having their remains at Arlington National Cemetery, where burial and inurnment space is at a premium. (The name change is an appropriate one, however: though WASPS have received the most attention in the fight over space at Arlington, and have been active in drumming up support, they represent just a portion of the group that is affected by the law.)
As the Congressional Budget Office explains in its assessment of the economic impact of the new law—which will be minimal—in 1977 the G.I. Bill Improvement Act determined that certain people who had served the country in nontraditional military roles (like Merchant Marines or WASPs) were eligible to get active-duty veterans’ benefits from Department of Veterans’ Affairs. However, since Arlington Cemetery is administered by the Department of Defense and the Army, not the VA, those people were not eligible for a resting place in the nation’s main military cemetery. In 2002, the Army quietly decided that WASPS could, in fact, be eligible.
Last year, then-Secretary of the Army John McHugh announced that the 2002 decision had been made in error. As the cemetery administration posited, the WASPS had never been eligible in the first place—despite about a decade passing during which they were considered to be—due to a misinterpretation of the 1977 law. The new law answers that question once and for all: The people who were declared to have served on active duty, including the WASPs, can rest at Arlington.
Looking at the images from this 1943 LIFE cover story about their training, it’s easy to see why the women of the WASP program fought for that recognition. Though the “girl pilots” seemed to be enjoying themselves during their training in Sweetwater, Texas7, they were devoted to their physical and classroom training, and able to meet the challenges the Army sent their way—including planes not designed for shorter pilots.