A funeral was being held for a member of our country’s military. The Honor Guard was present fulfilling its duty. A chaplain orchestrated the ceremony. But sadly, there was no one else in attendance — no family mourning or no fellow soldiers witnessing the honor being bestowed on one of their own.
This is the scene that Hoyt Vandenberg, then Chief of Staff for the United States Air Force, observed at Arlington Cemetery in 1948. After witnessing a soldier being buried alone, Vandenberg and his wife, Gladys, set out to make sure that it never happened again.
Gladys enlisted friends and other military wives, and formed a group to attend all Air Force funerals. Other branches of the military followed suit by forming their own groups of volunteers. Collectively, the volunteers are now known as the “Arlington Ladies.” The women are considered representatives of the military, and they can act as surrogates for families who can’t afford to travel to the burial site.
Each woman in the group has a personal connection to the military. Most are military wives, but there are some daughters who give their time as well.
Their duties include attending military burial services and honoring the service member who is being laid to rest. They will often present the service person’s family with a handwritten note from the Arlington Lady herself, though the Arlington Lady is required to maintain composure while attending the burial. She is there to show respect for the military member’s service.
According to Paula McKinley, the chairman of the Navy Arlington Ladies (NAL), the Arlington Ladies are not “professional mourners,” they are a support system for the families of fallen service members. According to Military Families, McKinley was a Navy spouse for more than 20 years and started volunteering with the group in 1991.
“I knew I wanted to do it because I’d met so many wonderful people through the Navy,” she told the military. “I feel like I was there for my best friends.”
Arlington Lady Doreen Huylebroeck has buried her husband and close to 500 other veterans.
“The military person is a hero and he deserves it. It’s just a special way to honor him and be there,” Huylebroeck told Stars and Stripes. “It’s our way of saying thank you to him for his service.”
Though the women shy away from recognition, we want to express our gratitude for not allowing these deaths to pass unnoticed. Many families have been comforted knowing that these woman are there, watching over and honoring those who have lost their lives while serving our country.
[h/t: Mental Floss]