Coming home today I heard this conversation on NPR news. It was an interview with an Arlington Lady. Since I am from a family who has, due to timing, never had a family member in the service, I had never heard of this group. They are the ones who try to make sure that no veteran is ever buried without
Photo by C. Todd Lopez
someone being at the grave site. Although some call them mourners, that is not what they do.They are there to pay homage to the veterans.
The Arlington Ladies are a group of about 150 women who have been attending funerals since after WW II. The original group was started for the Air Force in 1948. In 1973, the army initiated a group when the Army chief-of-staff noticed someone being buried with no one in attendance. He swore that would never happen again. The Navy Ladies formed in 1985. The Air Force, Army, and Navy all have Arlington Ladies.
The Air Force was the first group to have Ladies. During Viet Nam,they were there when so many young pilots were buried. It was not an easy job to watch the families of those young flyers. As far as the Marines, there is a representative of the Marine commandant at every funeral.
The Ladies are there for the youngest who have died in Iraq or Afghanistan to the oldest who served in WW II. Many times it is the older ones who have no one with them.
On average two women at a time attend five funerals a day. A Lady steps forward at the grave site as the folded flag is handed to the next of kin. She offers the family members condolences and presents them with a card from the chief-of-staff of the appropriate service. All of the Ladies, and one Gentleman, are former or current military spouses. They are aware of what the grieving families are going through in many cases. They are part of the larger family to which all the military personnel belong.
Originally they were there at the service alone. However, at one of the funerals someone came up to one of them and asked her if she was the other woman. From that point on, the Ladies had military escorts and took part in the service.
The ladies range in age from in their 20s to 65. Their dress code prohibits them from wearing slacks. In the winter, it sometimes gets very cold, but they are there in their dresses nevertheless. They are also not allowed to wear bright colors. They are, however, allowed to wear sunglasses. They are “on call” about one day a month and may attend one funeral or up to five. One woman, Nancy Schado, has attended over 2000 funerals in the twenty years that she has been a volunteer.
Some of the hardest funerals to attend are those of the soldiers,etc. who served in WW II or Korea. Often if they still have spouses, the widows are no longer able to travel to Arlington for the burial. However, there are also those veterans, due to a variety of circumstances, who become homeless without a family. They are accorded the same respect as anyone else. They also served their country.
Sometimes it is the ashes of the service person who is buried. That makes no difference. Their ashes are accorded the same honor that a casket would have. The flag is draped over the urn just as it would be over a casket.
Most of the veterans being buried in Arlington National Cemetary are of the older veterans. Many of the families of the young prefer to have them buried nearer their homes.
It is not easy to be an Arlington Lady. They have to keep a stiff upper lip.They are not permitted to get too personal. One Lady got into trouble for kissing the foreheads of the wife and mother of a young service man. However, it was soon reported that it was felt that was exactly what they needed at that point. They considered it a blessing.
Arlington National Cemetary is noted by some to be the Nation’s Most Sacred Shrine. The ownership of the land can be traced back to before the Civil War. It is indeed an honored place. An average of 6,000 are buried there each year. With the addition of sixty acres, cemetary planners are saying there should be room until 2060.
It is a pipe dream to say it is hoped that all those yet to be buried have already served. However, part of the 350,000 veterans expected are still going to be the young idealistic service personnel, both men and women, who feel the call for duty. Perhaps the Arlington Ladies will still be needed for another fifty years. If so, they will be there with dignity waiting to let someone know that they care. They should be frequently thanked for this selfless service to the nation. They will be remembered by the family long after the last bugle note has floated in the air. Namaste. Attic Annie