Ladies of Arlington Never Miss Final Salute

May 05, 2008
BY C. Todd Lopez
Courtesy of Soldiers Magazine

During a recent Army funeral at Arlington National Cemetery, a woman escorted by a member of the Army's 3rd U.S. Infantry (The Old Guard), stood silently near the gravesite.

Not related to the Soldier being interred that day, she is one of about 65 women, known as the Arlington Ladies, who volunteer to attend Army funerals held at the nation's most hallowed cemetery. So every time a Soldier is buried there, an Arlington Lady is present.

They attend funerals in the heat, in the snow and in the rain. They are present for the burial of the youngest Soldier who was killed during his first tour in Iraq and for the World War II-era Soldier who spent his last years in the Old Soldiers Home in Washington, D.C.

The Arlington Ladies stand a silent vigil at funerals attended by dozens of mourners and at funerals where a Soldier has no next of kin – no friends present to render a final salute. In fact, that is the very reason they attend funerals.

Since 1973, the Arlington Ladies have ensured that no Soldier – old or young – is ever buried alone.

The idea for the Arlington Ladies came about when Air Force Chief of Staff General Hoyt S. Vandenberg noticed no friends or relatives were on hand for some Air Force funerals. When he told wife, Gladys, of his concerns, she mobilized members of the Officers Wives Club to begin attending funerals.

In 1973 Julia Abrams, the wife of Army Chief of Staff General Creighton Abrams Jr., became concerned about Soldiers being buried at Arlington Cemetery without family or friends present and established the Arlington Ladies.

Today, the Air Force, the Army and the Navy all have Arlington Ladies who perform similar duties at the cemetery for members of their respective services.

Many times it's the older Soldiers, the ones who served in Korea and World War II, who have no one to attend their funerals.

Nancy Graves, an Arlington Lady since 1978, said she has attended several funerals where there are no family members or friends present at a Soldier's burial.

Besides honoring the Soldiers who are buried at Arlington, the ladies also extend to grieving family members the sympathy of the Army chief of staff and the entire Army family, said Margaret Mensch, Arlington Ladies chairwoman.

“We've been accused of being professional mourners, but that isn't true,” she said. “I fight that perception all the time. What we're doing is paying homage to Soldiers who have given their lives for our country.”

Each month Mensch creates a schedule, assigning two volunteers for each day a burial will be performed. The volunteers learn the day before how many funerals they will attend and who will be interred, either in the ground or in the cemetery's columbarium.

Arlington National Cemetery holds as many as 100 funerals a week, Monday through Friday. That's about 20 funerals a day. In recent years, that number has risen even higher. About half of the funerals are for Soldiers, and they are split between the two Arlington Ladies on duty each day.

Graves has lost count of the number of funerals she's attended over the past 30 years, she said. Today, eight to 10 Soldiers are interred daily. “So we each attend five funerals a day, on average,” she said.

When the Arlington Ladies began attending funerals some 35 years ago, they attended alone. But later they felt, as did the Army, that they needed to be made a more official part of the ceremony. So today Arlington Ladies attend the funerals with a military escort from the Army's Old Guard.

Pfc. Lyle Eagle is a member of the Old Guard and often escorts the Arlington Ladies. He also is a scheduler for other escorts. Soldiers who perform escort duty respect the Arlington Ladies, but are usually cautious at first, he said. That's because some of them are the wives of high-ranking officers and, as military partners, have witnessed decades of military history.

After working with the ladies for a while, the escorts are able to relax a bit and talk more informally, Lyle said. It is then that they learn about some of the Army history the ladies are privy to.

“For some funerals you have a few moments in the vehicle to talk to the ladies. They tell stories about their husbands' exploits, how the Army used to be and how it has changed over the years,” Lyle said.

The Army escort and the Arlington lady meet before each funeral at the cemetery's administration building and travel together, often with the military chaplain who will perform services, to a Soldier's gravesite.

They wait together near the burial site for the Soldier's casket to arrive, and then walk together to the burial site. There they wait silently, she holding his arm until the moment when the folded flag is presented to the deceased Soldier's next of kin. It is at that moment the Arlington lady steps forward and breaks her silence.

She approaches the widow, widower or grieving mother and father, and offers words of condolence. Then she presents the loved one a card from the Army chief of staff and his wife and a card from the Arlington Ladies.

Arlington Ladies may also have words of their own for the family members with whom they interact. Barbara Benson has been volunteering with the Arlington Ladies for 33 years and is the longest-serving Arlington Lady. She feels a special connection with older military wives who have lost their husbands and often asks them about their relationships, she said.

“I always try to add something personal, especially for a much older woman,” she said. “I always ask how long they were married. They like to tell you they were married 50 or 60 years.”

Benson was a former Soldier herself, serving as a flight nurse after World War II. Her own husband, Colonel George Benson (retired), died in December. Another Arlington Lady, a friend, comforted her at the funeral.

Following the Arlington Lady's portion of the ceremony, she steps back to her escort and remains silent for the remainder of the ceremony – she looks straight ahead and always maintains her dignity. While her portion of the ceremony is small, it is meaningful – for she represents to family members the entire Army family.

Chaplain (Major) David Baum said presiding over funerals at Arlington is an honor and each respective funeral helps loved ones grieve.

“The ceremony is a beautiful event to help families honor their loved ones,” he said. “I think it reminds them that the Soldier who died was part of something very important: service to his nation,” Baum said.

Because the Arlington Ladies are all former or current military spouses, “they help to put a family face on the ceremony,” he added. “They remind us that military service is often a family experience. Their presence brings home the fact that the entire Army family shares in their loss.”

Arlington Ladies volunteer for the service for many reasons – patriotism, honor and selfless service among them. Some of the ladies have felt part of the Army for the many years their husbands served and some served themselves. Those ladies want to continue that service to the Army for as long as they can.

Benson said she participates so she can continue to serve Soldiers, even 60 years after her own service at the end of World War II.

“I don't know how to say it really,” she said. “I guess because I identify with Soldiers. That was my life for 31 years. So it just seems like the natural thing to do.”

The Arlington Ladies serve, they say, because it is an honor for them to let families know the Army has not forgotten the service their loved one gave to the United States. And their service, like that of the Soldiers they honor, is representative of the Army's value of selfless service.

The Arlington Ladies

There are about sixty Arlington Ladies and one Arlington Gentleman, representing the Army, Navy or Air Force at Arlington National Cemetery funerals. The Marine Corps does not have a group, but a spokesman said there is a representative of the Marine commandant at each funeral.

Generally, each volunteer works one day a month. None of them knows how many funerals he or she has attended. On the day that Cottingham attended 4 funerals, so did Dolores Forte, another Army Arlington Lady. At 11:30 am, Forte was at a funeral for a retired Colonel. She stood at the curb with her escorts as the horse-drawn caisson carrying the flag-draped mahogany casket came down the hill, the silence broken by the sound of hoofs on the pavement, the rat-ta-tat-tat of a drum, the tapping of the soldiers' shoes marching with perfect precision. Then, the softer patter of relatives walking behind the casket. Forte, an Army Arlington Lady for 14 years, watches it all. Again.

“It's so beautiful, so elegant, so perfect,” said Nancy Schado, chairman of the Army's Arlington Ladies. “There is so much history and beauty around you — in that cemetery — it takes the sadness away.”

Still, at one time or another, each volunteer has left the cemetery misty-eyed. Forte, a grand-mother who declined to give her age, recalls vividly that “in September, I was the only person at the funeral of a WWII soldier whose remains had just been found. He was 22.” “I remember one funeral in December; it was the grandson burying the grandfather,” Cottingham said. “Next to this new grave was the grandson's father's grave. It really touched me that this young man had buried his grandfather and his father, side by side.”

Elinore Riedel, 62, was chairman of the Air Force Ladies during the Vietnam War, at a time when none of the other branches of the military had Ladies. “Most of the funerals were for young men,” she said. “I saw little boys running little airplanes over their father's coffins. It is a gripping thing, and it makes you realize the awful sacrifices people made. Not only those who died, but those left behind.”

Suellen Lansell, chairman of the Air Force Ladies, remembered a service where the only other guest was “one elderly gentlemen who stood at the curb and would not come to the grave site. He was from the Soldier's Home in Washington, D. C. One soldier walked up to invite him closer, but he said no, he was not family. “It was touching to me to be there and to watch all of these professionals — the chaplain and soldiers — who performed their duties as if hundreds were watching.”

Usually, the volunteers know little about the deceased, only what the chaplain tells them, if he has a chance to tell them anything. Although the mood usually is somber, the svces, like life, are sometimes touched by humor. Riedel recalled standing alone at a service when someone asked, “Are you the other woman?” She was at a loss for words. Later, she told the chaplain something had to be done to make the Ladies appear to be a part of the ceremony. Thus, escorts were added. The weather conditions have caused both despair and laughter.

“The cemetery is very soggy after rain, and there are many times when you start to take a step and your shoes don't come with you,” Riedel said. “Members of the Old Guard must be at least 6 foot, and so, even when they hold the umbrella, it's so high you often get soaked,” Forte said.

The Ladies are all warned not to wear perfume in the summer so that bees won't hang around. Most often, they never again see the families they comfort. But occasionally a Lady receives a note. “Then you are reminded of what we do for people, how we touch their lives,” Lansell said.

Riedel, whose father was a minister, grew up in a household watching him serve people in need. She wants to pass on the same legacy to her children. “It doesn't matter whether you know a person or not, whether you will ever see them again,” she said. “It calls upon the best in all of us to respond to someone in deep despair. I call it grace, and I honestly feel we all need more grace in our lives.”

May 29, 1995: ARLINGTON, Virginia

Some days Nancy Schado stands at the graves of 4, maybe five soldiers in Arlington National Cemetery. Some were officers, others enlisted men, and some of them died old and lonely. But Mrs Schado and other volunteers make sure none is buried unmourned.

At least one of the Arlington Ladies –a corps of about 150 women –attends every military burial at the cemetery that is most closely associated with American triumph and tragedy. A volunteer is there, hand on heart, for the solemn pomp of a General's interment or the quiet burial of a young enlisted man.

“They have done so much for us, it's the least we can do to say thank you,” Mrs Schado said.

About fifteen graves are added every day to the sloping lawns of Arlington, where 242,000 already rest.

On a sparkling, blue-skied morning last week, Mrs Schado stood a respectful distance aside as a six-horse caisson bore the casket of a retired Army Colonel. A bright sun glistened off row upon row of white headstones as a distant bugle played the wavering notes of “Taps” for about 30 mourners. The music ended and Mrs Schado took the widow's hand. Colonel David Tice Griffin was a stranger to Mrs Schado. She had never heard of him until the night before his burial. But the tears came nonetheless.

“In a way, you never get used to it,” Mrs Schado said afterward. “Arlington Cemetery is such a beautiful place, though. Peaceful and beautiful. That helps take some of the sadness out of it.”

The Arlington Ladies represent the Army, Navy and Air Force. The Marines do not have women funeral representatives. Mrs Schado is president of the Army Arlington Ladies, a group of 64 volunteers.

Volunteers generally work one day a month, standing behind the chaplain in whatever weather their duty day brings. A given day may bring one funeral or five.

“There are no 2 alike,” said Eileen D'Araujo, also an Army Arlington Lady. The Army Arlington Ladies must be the wives or widows of Army men and be referred by a current Arlington Lady. The Navy and Air Force have similar requirements. The group hearkens to a time when women were less likely to hold paying jobs and more likely to call themselves ladies.

Mrs Schado notes the current group includes women in a variety of professions who range in age from 22 to 65. Mrs Schado will not tell her age “because it makes people think we're just a bunch of doddering old ladies who don't have anything else to do.”

There is one Arlington Gentleman, William Widnall, whose wife, Sheila, is Secretary of the Air Force. Mrs. Schado hopes too many men don't join. She prefers the old-fashioned symbolism of women comforting widows. After all, she notes, when soldiers die, it's usually a wife or a mother who is left behind. The volunteers write a short personal note to each family, and present it along with a printed condolence letter from the head of each service. When she writes a note to a widow, Mrs. Schado always mentions that her own husband, an Army Lieutenant Colonel, is buried at Arlington.

“You just want to hug them and tell them it's going to be all right. Not the same, but all right,” Mrs Schado said. She included her phone number on each of the notes that has accompanied the approximately 2,000 funerals she has attended in 20 years on the job. “It never seems like enough. You wish you could do so much more for them,” she said. Often, family members call her or write a thank-you note after the ceremony. One widow annually sends Mrs Schado a check to buy flowers.

The Air Force volunteer burial corps formed first, just after WWII, to handle burials of bodies returned from Europe and the Pacific. The Army formed its Arlington Ladies corps in 1972, when General Creighton Abrams, then Army chief of staff, happened upon a burial at the cemetery with no mourners. “He said right then that must never happen again,” Mrs Schado said.

Families are often surprised to see a stranger at the graveside, but appreciate the women's presence, cemetery historian Tom Sherlock said. That was the case for Griffin's son, Tice Griffin, who was overwhelmed by the sober, clean-edged grace of the funeral with full military honors for his father. “I think it's very nice of them. I had no idea it would be so big like this,” he said. But the saddest funerals are usually the smallest –old soldiers who outlive their families and friends. Sometimes, their wives are too frail or lack the money to travel to Arlington and attend the service. “That's very disturbing. It is very, very hard,” Mrs. Schado said. “But we are here for two reasons. First because we care, and secondly so that no one in the US Army will ever be buried alone,” she said.

The Angels of Arlington
October 2, 2000

Courtesy of Stars and Stripes

In the basement of Arlington National Cemetery's administration building, Kathleen McGuth, who has been an “Arlington Lady” for 16 years, was on call.

Down a hallway and around the corner from the Arlington Ladies' duty room are chambers where family members gather before going out to their loved ones' gravesites.

On the afternoon of September 7, 2000, three of McGuth's comrades were standing by as well, like firemen waiting for an alarm.

That morning, McGuth and her Air Force staff sergeant escort had been the sole mourners at the grave of a former corporal in the Army Air Corps. The WWII veteran's widow was home in New Jersey, too frail to make the trip to Arlington.

“The widow did not want all the usual fuss, but she wanted to be sure that a prayer was said at the gravesite. And she appreciated that we were there, too,” said McGuth, the wife of a retired Air Force officer. The flag that covered the coffin will be sent to the widow along with a letter describing the service.

A Tradition Is Born

In 1948, Air Force Chief of Staff General Hoyt S. Vandenberg was living at Fort Myer, Virginia, in a home with a commanding view of the cemetery. He and his wife Gladys often walked there, and noticed airmen being buried with only the chaplain and an honor guard in attendance.

Mrs. Vandenberg enlisted members of the Officers' Wives Club to attend these funerals-without-mourners, and a tradition was born. The “Ladies of Arlington” now are represented by the Army, Navy and the Air Force. The Marine Corps does not have a group, but a representative of the commandant attends every funeral.

There are 23 interments daily, and the ladies are on hand to ensure that none is conducted in a bleak and friendless atmosphere. Even when friends and family are present, the ladies and their escorts, the young active duty men whose job it is to stand at their sides, volunteer their services.

“I always introduce myself to the family as the representative of the chief of staff of the Air Force,” said McGuth. “I say that he regrets that he could not be in attendance personally.”

Escorts Added

The volunteers typically know little about the deceased–only what the chaplain tells them. The ladies first served alone, but escorts were added after it was decided that something had to be done to make them appear to be more a part of the ceremony.

Cissil Chrisco, an Army representative and an Arlington Lady for 24 years, is the current chairman of the volunteers, who she said have become a mixed group over the years. In addition to military wives, there now are military daughters and even a gentleman among them.

Pfc. Arlan Sheets is a member of the 3rd Infantry, “The Old Guard” that has long been a mainstay at Arlington and the Tomb of the Unknowns.

“We serve as escorts for four months,” said the ramrod-straight soldier in immaculate dress blues. “Then it's back to normal duties. The Navy guys are permanently assigned and will spend their whole tours as escorts.”

The Army Arlington Ladies must be the wives or widows of Army men and be referred by a current volunteer. The Navy and Air Force have similar requirements. The Air Force volunteersorganized just after WWII to handle burials of bodies returned from Europe and the Pacificwere the first.

‘All With Honor'

The Army formed its Arlington Ladies corps in 1972 when General Creighton Abrams, the Army's chief of staff, happened upon a burial with no mourners.

“We ‘ve been the sole mourners at many services for the deceased residents of the local Soldiers and Airmens' Home,” said McGuth.

“Sometimes two or three of the gentlemen from the home will stand by with us at the grave of a comrade.”

According to David Theale, public affairs officer for the Military District of Washington, the intention is to maintain a respectful decorum. The mission: “No one is to ever to buried alone. All are buried with honor.”  Tourists and journalists are prohibited from photographing funerals unless the family assents.

June 1995

For the nearly 4 million people who visit annually, Arlington National Cemetery provides a chance to remember our nation's proud history and to honor America's military heroes.

Few Americans who make the pilgrimage to our nation's most sacred shrine — except those who come to say a last farewell to a family member or friend during funeral services — are aware of the small group of dedicated volunteers known as the Arlington Ladies.

In bitter cold winds, snow or scorching heat, the Arlington Ladies attend the last rites of service members they have probably never met.  They are there to ensure that no member of the U.S. Navy, Army or Air Force is ever buried alone at Arlington National Cemetery.

“We attend the funeral services so that no one who served in the Navy will ever have to be buried alone at Arlington,” said Navy Arlington Lady Gretchen Campbell.

“I'm not going to funeral services as someone who is thereto mourn; I'm there out of respect, and to honor this person who gave some of their life to serve their country,” said Air Force Arlington Lady Suellen Lansell.     “In my note, I write something a little different. I tellthem that I can understand their feelings very well because my husband is also buried in Arlington Cemetery.  I want to show that spouse that I was in their position and now I'm fine,” said Army Arlington Lady Nancy Schado.

The cemetery was established more than 120 years ago, but the silent headstones extend back before the Civil War because of re-interments.  More than 200,000 service members and their spouses and children are now buried there on about 612 acres of land.

The history of the Arlington Ladies goes back to 1948, when Air Force Chief of Staff General Hoyt S. Vandenberg saw a funeral at Arlington.  An airmen was being buried, but no one was there to honor him except the chaplain and members of the Honor Guard. Gladys Vandenberg, the general's wife, began attending all Arlington burials for Air Force personnel.  She organized a group of officers' wives, known as the Arlington Committee, whose members have attended all funerals since then.  Other branches of the service became involved later.  The Army Arlington Ladies began their volunteer work in 1972.  The Navy Arlington Ladies were organized in 1985.

Each Arlington Ladies group represents their respective service, but they all offer comfort and strength to those who have lost their loved ones and extend the personal condolences of their service chief's first family at the burial site.

Nearly 150 women volunteer to serve one day each month. They are the spouses, widows or mothers of retired or active-duty members of the U.S. Navy, Army or Air Force.  Many have buried a family member at Arlington themselves, or have experienced a personal loss that motivates their strong commitment to serve.

For Campbell, attending funeral services is a way to show respect for the service member and to let the family know the Navy cares.

“We are there to show the grieving spouse and family that their Navy family is standing behind them and supports them through anything,” Campbell said.  At the grave site, after the chaplain has presented the flag to a spouse or next of kin, [the Arlington Lady representative] steps forward to offer words of sympathy: “On behalf of the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Admiral Mike Boorda and Mrs. Boorda and the Commandant of the Naval District of Washington Admiral Edward Moore Jr. and Mrs. Moore and all the Arlington Ladies, I am here today to express our sincerest sympathy.”

Campbell then hands the family an envelope, which contains engraved sympathy cards from the CNO and his wife, the Commandant and his wife and her own hand-written personal note.  She invites the family to contact her if she can help them in any way.  About a month later, she follows up with a letter to see how the family is doing and to let them know she's there if they need any help.

It's not that Campbell particularly likes attending funerals or has a lot of time on her hands.  She serves as the Navy Ombudsman for the Bureau of Naval Personnel and chairs the National Capital Region Ombudsman Council, but she remembers a time when she needed support.  When her infant son died, she was living in an area where there were no other military families nearby to turn to.  Now, as an Arlington Lady, she can offer her support to people who may feel alone after the death of a loved one.

“I stand where the family can see me.  I don't think of the person who is being buried; you have to be strong for the family,” said Campbell.  “The most heart wrenching part of the service for me is when the flag is presented.”

Another Navy wife, Sue Bushey, says her experience as an Arlington Lady from 1988 to 1992 was one of “the high points of her existence in Washington,” when her husband served as the Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy.

“The chaplain helped me to see how helpful it was to be there for people,” said Bushey.

“You are calm and you relay that to the family.  This is an important time for them because they can finally bring closure to a trauma, and your presence signifies they can go on with their lives.”

Arlington Ladies are driven to the funeral site by military escort.  If there is a chapel service, she takes her place in the rear of the chapel; otherwise, she takes the arm of her military escort and stands at the head of the grave or at the Columbarium area and waits for the funeral to arrive.

There are close to 100 burials a week.  The Arlington Ladies attend the funerals of all Navy, Army, and Air Force service members, from seaman or private to admiral or general — whether they're receiving full or simple honors.

The volly of the rifle party, the mournful sound of Taps, handing the folded U.S. flag to the next of kin, the Ceremonial Guard and Band are all familiar to the Arlington Lady.

“There's a firing party and a bugler at the funeral services for anyone who is buried at Arlington,” said Nancy Schado, an Army Arlington Lady since 1975.  “Every time the bugler plays the first note of Taps, I start to pray.

“It was always harder for me when it was a young Sailor who died on active duty, as opposed to someone who had retired 10-15 years ago,” Bushey said.

The Arlington Ladies all speak fondly of the enlisted personnel who serve in the Ceremonial Guard, the Old Guard and the Honor Guard as escorts, pallbearers, buglers, members of the rifle party; and the musicians in the Navy, Army and Air Force Bands who assist them in performing their mission of mercy.

While the U.S. Marine Corps does not participate in this program, their Casualty Officer reported that an official representative from the Marine Corps attends all funeral services that are conducted for active-duty or retired Marines, their eligible spouses and family members at Arlington National Cemetery.

Spouses or family members of Navy service personnel — officer and enlisted, active duty and retired — are eligible to participate in the Navy Arlington Ladies.

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