Congresswoman Kristi Noem’s Weekly Column: Inscribing a Legacy

noem press header kristi noem headshot May 21 2014Inscribing a Legacy
By Rep. Kristi Noem

It was 1942 – less than a year after Pearl Harbor and months after America officially entered World War II.  Tens of thousands of men had left their families to serve their country.  Millions more were standing at the ready to do the same.  And still, the United States faced a severe shortage of military pilots.  As businesses and factories had already done, the Army turned to women.

Throughout our military’s history, women have filled critical roles – even if they haven’t always been recognized for it.  In the American Revolution, women were nurses and cooks.  In the Civil War, women like Frances Clalin – a mother of 3 who enlisted in the Union Army as Jack Williams – disguised themselves as men just to have the opportunity to serve in this way.

By World War I, tens of thousands of women had joined the military in various roles, serving as nurses, telephone operators, stenographers, and clerks.  Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, every branch of the military created additional roles for women.  More than a quarter-million women stepped up to serve, including more than 1,000 young female aviators who came to be called the “Women Airforce Service Pilots,” or WASP.

The women in WASP, who logged around 60 million miles of flying, transported cargo.  They tested overhauled planes and flew new aircraft from the factory to a military base.  They often towed targets to help gunners in the air and on the ground train – with live ammunition, mind you.  38 of these women lost their lives during such missions.

Still, women from across the country volunteered for service.  Around a half-dozen South Dakotans served in the WASPs, including Ola Mildred Rexroat, a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe in South Dakota who was the only Native American to serve in the group.

What’s more, women offered up everything they had to be part of WASP.  While male pilots would be trained once they joined the military, women had to have their pilot’s license before applying to join WASP, which cost about $500 – a significant amount of money at that time.

Many of the women hoped they would be absorbed into the military after the war, but instead, the program was disbanded.  The women were dismissed from their bases with no ceremony or fanfare, in many cases.  Because WASPs were considered civil service employees, the fallen women received no military honors or benefits.  In fact, it took 32 years after the end of World War II for WASPs to finally receive full military status, meaning they could use VA hospitals and had the right to be buried with a flag, among other things.  Thirty-three years after that, 300 of these women gathered in Washington, D.C., to receive the Congressional Gold Medal.

Earlier this month, the House passed H.R.4336, which I helped sponsor, to grant WASP members a place in Arlington National Cemetery.  Should this legislation be made law, it would not only offer our nation’s appreciation for the women’s service, but inscribe their lasting legacy into this sacred ground.

We owe everyone who has served and sacrificed in service to our country a great deal of gratitude.  While there is certainly more that should be done on all fronts to ensure veterans receive the care, respect, and dignity they have earned, the WASP legislation rightly recognizes the courageous actions of a few good women. I am humbled to have been a part of its passage.

To all those who have served, thank you.