ARLINGTON, Va. — Stephanie Czech Rader’s friends and family gathered Wednesday morning at the Old Post Chapel, next to Arlington National Cemetery, to pay her one last honor.
Shortly after guests began to arrive, a horse-drawn carriage accompanied by 8 soldiers from the U.S. Army’s 3rd Infantry Regiment carried Rader’s casket, draped with the U.S. flag, to section 11 of the cemetery for her internment. There are around 30 funerals every day at Arlington. Few receive an honorary flyover, as Rader’s did, along with a military band, a firing party, and a bugler.
But in addition to those full military burial honors, Rader was bestowed with an award 70 years in the making—the Legion of Merit, among the military’s highest recognitions for bravery and exceptional service.
Rader worked as an intelligence operative for the Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor of the CIA, in post-WWII Poland. She was only one of two Polish speaking OSS officers in the country and was routinely sent on undercover missions to track Russian troop movements and transport sensitive documents.
Rader’s superior officers had nominated for her for the award in 1946. But the military bureaucracy of the time apparently didn’t think her service merited distinction.
Today, the powers that be say otherwise. There was “no legitimate reason why this commendation was denied, other than the pervasive gender discrimination which existed in the early days of the American intelligence community right after World War II,” Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, Rader’s home state, said last month in announcing that the Army had decided to grant the award. Warner intervened on Rader’s behalf after her friends mounted a campaign to get her the award, even if it came seven decades late.
The Legion of Merit was formally presented at Rader’s funeral.
“Stephanie chose the life of a warrior,” said U.S. Army Capt. Azande Sasa, the presiding chaplain at the ceremony. “She has earned her place among those honored here.”
Rader never asked to be recognized, and it took her many years to tell the story of her wartime service. As she recounted in an interview a few years ago, while working undercover Rader evaded Soviet agents while on a mission to transport sensitive documents. Had she been captured, she likely would have been arrested and never heard from again, Rader explained.
Ultimately, the military gave Rader a lesser award. “It was downgraded without any explanation,” Charles Pinck, president of the OSS Society, told The Daily Beast. “They nominated her, but I don’t think there was anybody to fight on her behalf at the time.”
Only recently did Rader’s friends and neighbors take up her case anew. Rader died in January, at age 100, but was aware of their efforts on her behalf.
Rader’s friends said they were overjoyed that their years-long effort culminated in a grand celebration of her life at the nation’s most prestigious burial ground.
Another reason it took so long to get there, said a close friend, Michael Golden, was that Rader could not describe exactly what she had done during her service because it had been a secret. OSS personnel records weren’t declassified until 2008.
“The plain vanilla description didn’t warrant a Legion of Merit,” Golden said. Some of the military documents from the time fail to capture the breadth of Rader’s service. More details of her time as a spy emerged many years later, partially through conversations with her friends.
“While we were traveling, I outed her as a spy,” Ken Elder, Rader’s executor and a close friend since 1969, joked at the post-service reception. “And she never really forgave me for that.”
As Elder tells it, he and Rader were traveling in Warsaw about 30 years ago, along with her late husband, Gen. William S. Rader, when she showed Elder what she claimed was the exact location where Gen. Dwight Eisenhower had arrived to inspect the post-war devastation and sign the armistice.
Later that afternoon, a tour guide told the group the same story.
“You said that you were there when he came,” Elder told Rader. “So you had to be a spy!”
“Well, I guess that’s what you might call it now,” Rader responded.
At Arlington, Rader joins her husband, an Air Force brigadier general who was buried in 2003 and given a rare B-2 bomber flyover. William Rader was a storied bomber commander who survived being shot down over the Pacific and led one of the most famous raids into Nazi Germany. He was also a recipient of the Legion of Merit.
“As it turns out, they are both of equal quality as World War II heroes,” Elder said. “It’s amazing. … Two heroes of that magnitude to be in the same family.”