“Who’s your hero?” That inquiry is one of the go-to questions journalists (like me) often ask when interviewing someone for a profile. It not only provides insight into one’s personality and motivations, it reveals the qualities or traits the person values most.
For Washington attorney Erin Miller, the answer to that question is quite simple. Her hero is her grandmother, Elaine Danforth Harmon, who taught her what it means to be a self-reliant, resilient woman who can stand tough in the face of adversity.
“Growing up, I admired my grandmother’s independence and enthusiasm about life. She often encouraged me to follow my own path in life. I also admired how she was tough, having come of age during the Great Depression and lived through World War II, but also generous, kind, and polite. My grandmother loved the United States and tried to instill in me the same love of country.”
There was another reason Miller – and many others – greatly admire her grandmother. Harmon was one of 1,100 women who served as pilots in the U.S. Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP); women who answered the call to serve their country during WWII and did so despite tremendous difficulties and little acknowledgement after the war ended. After training with other WASPs at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas, Harmon was sent to Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas to work with male pilots on refreshing their instrument skills. During her service, she flew the PT-17 Stearman, BT-13 Valiant, the AT-6 Texan and the B-17 Flying Fortress.
I met Miller at EAA AirVenture this past summer, and had the opportunity to learn how her love and admiration of her grandmother turned into dogged determination to grant Harmon’s last request to be laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery. In 1975, Harmon was among the WASPs who testified before Congress to lobby for full veterans’ rights, which finally became reality in 1977. Then in 2002, the WASPs were granted eligibility for Arlington honors, but that ruling was reversed by the Army in 2015. Despite receiving the Congressional Gold Medal for their service in 2010, they were once again remanded to second-class status. After Harmon passed away April 21, 2015, Miller and her family saw this fight to honor Harmon’s burial request as a symbol to make difference once and for all on behalf of all WASPs.
“Obviously, I wanted my grandmother to be laid to rest at the cemetery of her choice. But part of what motivated me was knowing that she had been fighting, along with her WASP colleagues, to be recognized as equals in veterans’ law since World War II, and the fact that she was no longer here meant that someone had to carry on that fight and I was honored to do so. Additionally, there were still other members of the WASP alive, and regardless of whether they ultimately choose to be laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery, my family and I wanted to fight to ensure that they knew that they were recognized as equals before they died. They, like me, were under the impression that the legislation in 1977 had granted them equal veterans rights but in fact it was a law limited to only part of the federal government,” she explained.
“The WASPS were forgotten for 35 years, and it really bothered me. These women that were in the first [WASP training] classes, they needed some recognition, so that’s why I like getting the word out that these women existed and did something great.”
– Lt. Elaine Danforth Harmon, U.S. WASP, in a 2004 oral history interview for the Veterans History Project, Library of Congress
Miller started with a grass-roots social media campaign. After several weeks of promoting a petition on Change.org, Miller said “the ground began to shift.” Thousands of signatures poured in and the mainstream media began publishing and airing stories about Harmon and Miller’s fight.
Miller then spent months visiting the offices of Congressmen and women to press her case. Finally, Rep. Martha McSally of Arizona, a retired Air Force colonel, sponsored legislation that would grant full veteran status to the WASP. Despite the polarization in Congress, the House of Representatives unanimously passed H.R. 4336, and President Obama signed it into law May 20, 2016. Because it was so important to Miller that the situation was made right for her grandmother, Miller tattooed “114th Congress, 2nd Session, H.R. 4336” on her forearm as her own personal way of celebrating the victory.
On Sept. 7, 2016, Elaine Harmon’s remains were laid to rest with full military honors alongside her fellow veterans.
Miller has written a soon-to-be-published book entitled “Final Flight, Final Fight,” which recounts the story behind the struggle to gain acceptance of the WASPs at Arlington, as well as recounting Elaine Harmon’s life, especially the last few years before she died. “In the book, I would like readers to get a sense of why it was important to her that this issue be resolved. I would also like to try to convey to people how to resolve a problem like this via Congress and what it feels like to go through this process,” she said.
NBAA has announced it plans to present its Meritorious Service to Aviation Award to the WASP at its 2018 Convention. Erin Miller will be accepting the award on behalf of all WASP pilots, in recognition of her success in finally gaining inurnment rights at Arlington for these patriots. If you are planning to attend NBAA-BACE, you won’t want to miss it.
America, who’s your hero? Answer: Elaine Harmon and other brave, accomplished WASP pilots. Thank you all for your service to our country.