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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.
“What we do is always important and meaningful, but when you are alone at a funeral there is an added relevance,” Willey said. “You feel an even greater need to be there, like you’re helping to close the circle. For those grieving far away, a personal letter letting them know that someone was there can help soothe their sorrow. It shows them that their loved one’s service was not forgotten and also that their loss has not been ignored.”
The connection between the bereaved and an Arlington Lady does not end when the funeral is over, either.
“One of the first things I tell all my families is, ‘I am your Arlington lady, not just now but forever, and you can always contact me,'” said Paula McKinley, the chair of the Navy Arlington Ladies. “It’s a bond that is built to last.”
This may sound like hyperbole, but consider the following: McKinley has placed roses on a grave for years at the request of a Navy widow and last summer on what would have been the couple’s 50th anniversary she sent along 50 roses because it’s what she imagined the husband would have done.
“We write everyone a follow-up letter six to eight weeks later, as well” McKinley said. “In most families, there’s a great support group that hovers for a month or so. Then, it’s not that their family abandons them, it’s just that they go back to their own lives. But the grieving is not over. We just want to remind them they are still in our hearts and we are still available if they need us.”
“Usually by the end of a service, families have a glazed look,” Willey added. “They’re gone emotionally. But hopefully they’ll have a memory of somebody being there, being kind and touching to them in some way. The feedback we get suggests that’s true. Oftentimes I’ll get a letter a few months after a funeral from someone saying, ‘I didn’t comprehend what you were doing at the time, but thank you for being there.'”
For those who have not served in an official capacity, it might be difficult to understand what draws this group of women to events most of us spend our lives trying to avoid.
“It’s not emotionally grueling in the least,” McKinley said. “It can be emotional, but that’s a different thing. We are not mourners. We are there to pay tribute.”
“There is some distance you can get from the situation just by recognizing you are part of the ceremony,” Willey agreed, but added that when death comes suddenly or orphaned children are involved it can be tougher. “There have been times, I’ll admit, when I’ve had to fight back a big lump and stare at the sky or do whatever I have to do to keep myself from falling apart. And you do it, because part of my job is to protect the integrity of the ceremony, to make sure everything goes smoothly.”
IT’S CLEAR IN SPEAKING with these women that performing the duties of an Arlington Lady calls for something above and beyond being able to dress well. So, just as not everyone is made for the Honor Guard, the Arlington Ladies are a select group. There is no sign-up form on the Internet or any open call: One must be asked to join their ranks by another Arlington Lady.
Once invited, the motivations for becoming an Arlington Lady vary, but only slightly. Mostly it comes down to the same reasoning that draws a lot of people to regular military service: Honor, duty, country.
Willey, for example, became an Arlington Lady after much cajoling from a close friend and fellow military wife.
“I agreed to try it out just to shut her up,” she laughed. “It was sort of a fluke. But I quickly realized what a unique opportunity this was to serve the Air Force. It’s a feeling I can’t even describe, sharing these moments with people. As members of military families, we have a special insight into what their life was like. So these funerals we attend really feel like the funeral of somebody from our extended family.”
“There are few things in my life that have given me as much satisfaction as serving as an Arlington Lady volunteer,” Margaret Mensch of the Army’s Arlington Ladies contingent added. “It’s an honor to be asked to be a part of these ceremonies that pay tribute to the everyday heroes that make up the armed forces. We’re just giving back a little to those who have given us so much.”
For McKinley, serving as an Arlington Lady helps make up for some of the indifference to military sacrifice in modern society.
“A lot of people these days seem to believe the military is terrible,” she said. “It’s not easy, and it’s not for everybody, that’s for sure. But these people are giving of themselves every single day. There’s no draft. Everyone in the military has chosen to make the military their life, and whether it’s for four years or forty, they deserve to be thanked and honored. And I mean honored. That’s why I’m here and I’ve never lost sight of that.”
But there is also something larger, in the very best sense of the “one for all, and all for one” sentiment, at work here.
“One day, hopefully a long time away yet, I could be the one burying my husband,” she said. “If that day comes I know there will be an Arlington Lady standing there with me. We all have our times of joy and sorrow and that’s what unifies us as human beings. I’m willing to be there on both ends because I know someone will do the same for me.”
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