Monday, May 31, 2010

The Ladies of Arlington

Paula McKinley walked out through Arlington National Cemetery seeking out a specific stone. After a brief walk she finds it, briefly touches the grave and moves on. The grave was that of a naval officer who accidentally died at 25. McKinley received a phone call from the officer's mother, who lived in California. She asked her to place a flower on her daughter's grave stone, which happened to be her daughter's birthday. McKinley still visits the grave from time to time paying her respects to that naval officer. McKinley is one of the members of the Arlington Ladies.

Their mission: to ensure no soldier is buried alone.

They are a small group of volunteers, mostly wives of retired military officers, whose purpose is to attend every burial of an armed service member held at Arlington National Cemetery. With nearly 30 funerals every weekday it can be a daunting task for Margaret Mensch and her 66 ladies. From the basement of the Arlington administration building she handles the scheduling of every funeral, ensuring that every burial has a lady present.

The group was originally formed in 1948, when Air Force Chief of Staff General Hoyt Vandenberg and his wife Gladys noticed airmen being buried without any family members present. Saddened by this fact she immediately formed a group of women from the Officers Club to start attending these ceremonies. Throughout the years other service branches formed their own groups. Today, 66 women and one man volunteer their time to attend and pay respect to the men and women who have served our country proudly. Desiring to make their visit seem more official the Arlington ladies are escorted to every burial by members of the Army's 3rd Infantry Regiment.

The Arlington ladies try to be present during a moment that can feel distant and sad. Being a military ceremony is has a lot of pomp and circumstance with very little of the human element addressed. One young woman was observed holding her toddler son, accompanied by a few family members burring a 27-year-old sergeant killed in Pakistan. The young woman seemed overwhelmed with emotion staring at her husbands casket. At that moment a stranger walks up to her, whispers a few words of condolence into her ear, handing her two cards, and saying "If there is anything you need..."

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