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ONE AFTERNOON towards the end of March, 200 mourners slowly trekked under a bright blue sky to the plot where 20-year-old Army Pfc. Michael Anthony Arciola was about to become the 123rd soldier killed during Operation Iraqi Freedom laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery. Arciola, a recipient of both the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star, was shot and killed on patrol in Al Ramadi on February 15. The larger than usual crowd was no surprise. The young man had been so well loved in his hometown of Elmsford, New York, that more than a thousand people came to his memorial service there. Dying young carries with it an implicit sense of tragedy that draws people — emotionally and physically — to it.
Nevertheless, Pfc. Arciola was not the only one laid to rest that Friday at Arlington. Sixteen other servicemen, most of them veterans many years older than Arciola, were likewise buried. An average week at Arlington will see between 80 and 100 burials on its 612 acres, and the final week of March was within that margin. Arciola’s funeral was the largest the cemetery had held in a few weeks. Others attracted dozens or fewer mourners. A smattering had no friends or loved ones in attendance at all.
As in most matters, however, the military prefers to focus on cohesion rather than dissension; on the ties that bind rather than the walls that separate. This is as true of funerals as it is of boot camp. Most people are aware of one aspect of this, the Honor Guard. But there is another unifying element, much less publicized than the 21-gun salute, but just as important in both a practical and symbolic sense. It comes in the form of a conservatively dressed woman who — whether amongst a throng of mourners, seated alongside the family, or standing as the sole attendee — is there to help shepherd the fallen soldier during his final mile.
These volunteer women are known as “The Arlington Ladies.” They attend every funeral at Arlington to ensure, first and foremost, that no soldier is ever buried with no one in attendance, and second, to serve the needs of family members, whether they are present at the funeral or not.
Normally it isn’t difficult to get someone to go on record about a noble pursuit. The first reaction to the prospect of a laudatory article is rarely reticence. But this group of no-nonsense women did not jump at the chance to talk about themselves. In fact, they were surprisingly difficult to track down at all. This is probably at least partially because the vast majority of Arlington Ladies are either retired servicewomen themselves or from military families, a culture not given to bragging.
“They don’t seek publicity,” Army Major Kevin Stroop, a regimental chaplain who performs funerals at Arlington, said. “What they do here is absolutely vital to our mission, but those moments they share with the families and our servicemen and women are intensely personal. The Arlington Ladies, as a group, really are committed to keeping those moments and their work sacred.”
When I finally get Linda Willey, wife of a retired Air Force Colonel and a 13-year veteran of the Arlington Ladies, on the phone, she is effusive and cordial, but makes it plain she is not looking for any outside affirmation of what she does.
“We’re here to pay our respects and support the families of those lost,” Willey said. “We don’t want a pat on the back or any gold stars. This is about something bigger than flaunting what we do for brownie points.”
Interviews with other Arlington Ladies quickly make it clear that Willey’s claims are not frivolous false modesty, but truth. There is, it seems, still such a thing as selfless service.
THE STORY OF THE ARLINGTON LADIES stretches back to a day in 1948 when Air Force Chief of Staff General Hoyt Vandenberg happened upon the funeral of an airman at Arlington. What he saw disturbed him: There wasn’t a soul at the service, save the chaplain and the Honor Guard members conducting it. Vandenberg, the nephew of the legendary Republican Senator Arthur Vandenberg, was about as dedicated an airman as they come. After winning the Distinguished Service Medal and Silver Star for his service during and tactical planning of the Normandy invasion, Vandenberg began a dizzying series of promotions that landed him in the Air Force’s top spot at the sprightly age of 49. He took pride in defending his men from the enemy and Washington bureaucrats alike. It did not sit well with him to watch a fellow airman make this final journey alone.
When he brought this black cloud of concern home, his wife Gladys worked to soothe her husband’s worries by personally attending Air Force personnel burials and founding the Arlington Committee. Thus, an Arlington institution — eventually to become known as the Arlington Ladies — was born. The complimentary Army Arlington Ladies was founded in 1972, with the Navy following suit in 1985. The Marine Corps, true to its separate nature, does not have a contingent of Arlington Ladies, but a representative of the Commandant is at every funeral. There are now more than 160 active Arlington Ladies.
The Arlington Ladies’ mission has evolved since those early days. If there are family members present, an Arlington Lady will deliver a personal note of condolence from the chief of staff’s office. They also write their own note of condolence, based upon an information sheet provided by the government with dates of service, awards given, and name of next of kin, as well as any other information the chaplain can provide.
“You get pretty good at reading between lines,” Willey said. “When you see what period they served in, you have a good idea of what that person may have gone through.”
If family is unable to attend a funeral, an Arlington Lady will send a letter describing the service and the day, right down to the sounds and smells in the air.
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