WASHINGTON – For 96-year-old Betty Wall Strohfus, the barrier to Arlington National Cemetery represents just one more battle in her lifetime push for gender equity in the Armed Forces.
Strohfus is a Faribault resident who was a pilot during World War II. She served from 1943 to 1944 and piloted eight different aircraft, including the B-17 and the B-26. In addition to flying anti-aircraft training missions, she was a flight instructor, allowing male pilots to remain in combat.
The Women Airforce Service Pilots called themselves WASPs, and there were only about 1,100 of them. They weren’t recognized as veterans until 1977, after decades of lobbying in Congress.
They still do not have rights to have their ashes inurned at Arlington National Cemetery — something Sen. Amy Klobuchar and a number of other female senators are trying to change.
The Minnesota Democrat wrote a letter to Defense Secretary Ash Carter in January asking the Army to allow the remaining WASPs — there are only about 100 still alive nationwide — to be able to have their ashes laid to rest at the cemetery if they choose.
Last week, the Pentagon said no.
Officials explained that they had rights to be buried at other veterans’ cemeteries, but not Arlington. They cited space limitations and Arlington’s “unique status as the nation’s pre-eminent military shrine.” Officials also pointed out that a WASP could always ask the Pentagon for an exception to the policy.
Klobuchar said she was disgusted and was going to keep pushing on behalf of the surviving women, all of whom are in their 90s. She said she would assist any WASP who wanted a waiver and she co-sponsored a measure that could get tucked into the military spending measure this year that would change the policy.
“The point is it’s just cremated remains, it’s not going to take up that much space,” Klobuchar said. “We can’t change history and how they were treated for years, but we can change how they are honored.”
Of the more than 400,000 people interred at Arlington, there are 17 WASPs buried there, though 15 of them were buried with their service member spouse or because they went on to serve in the military after WWII. Two slipped in between 2002 and 2010 when the military mistakenly didn’t follow its own burial protocol.
Arlington officials can’t say how many women service members are buried there overall.
The issue is particularly poignant given the Pentagon’s decision in December to allow all active-duty combat positions be open to women service members.
As for Strohfus, she is going to be buried with her family at a little local cemetery north of Faribault. But she wants “the girls,” as she calls her comrades, to be able to get into Arlington, if they choose.
“God bless them all. We had a tough time during those years and we never got any recognition for so many years,” Strohfus said. “But that was the way it was.”