Female WWII military pilots previously denied burial at Arlington National Cemetery can now have their ashes interred there.
On Friday, President Barack Obama signed into law a measure clarifying the eligibility of Women Airforce Service Pilots for the honor, overturning an Army decision to exclude them from the well-known cemetery. Congress had previously passed the legislation without any opposition.
White House officials had previously said the change was needed to "honor those surviving members of the Greatest Generation — including these pioneering pilots — who served on active duty during World War II."
That active-duty status has been the problem for advocates of the WASPs for years. Almost 1,100 of the women served from 1942 to 1944, ferrying airplanes, training combat pilots and towing airborne targets. Thirty-eight died during training and support missions.
But after the war, the women were denied veterans benefits and services because they did not qualify as active-duty troops under existing rules.
In 1977, when Congress passed legislation retroactively granting active-duty status to WASP pilots. But after initially ruling that group members could apply for burial of ashes at Arlington National Cemetery, the Army reversed course in 2015 and barred the women from consideration.
Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, who sponsored legislation in the Senate to help the WASPs, said the change was needed to recognize the service and sacrifice of the women.
"Today is a victorious occasion for a revolutionary group of women who deserve to be celebrated and remembered by all," she said in a statement after the bill signing. "They willingly put their lives on the line in service to our great country, and made tremendous sacrifices to join a ground-breaking flight program to free up their male counterparts for combat duty."
"Restoring what was once the right of the WASP to have their ashes placed at Arlington National Cemetery is undoubtedly the right thing to do in honoring these extraordinary women for their remarkable military service."
Honoring the female WWII veterans became one of the few bipartisan agreements in Congress so far this year, with Ernst and Rep. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., leading Capitol Hill rallies and legislative lobbying on the effort. Ernst is a retired Army lieutenant colonel and McSally is a retired Air Force colonel.
The new law comes as the Pentagon is working to expand all combat roles to female troops, and as lawmakers debate whether women should be forced to register with the Selective Service System if a future military draft is needed.
Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.