WASHINGTON _ They comfort the bereaved. They pray for the dead. They honor America's veterans.
"Our job is to say farewell to a service member, remember them, and make sure that no soldier will ever be buried alone in Arlington National Cemetery," said Linda Willey, chairwoman of the Air Force Arlington Ladies.
For 52 years, volunteers of the Arlington Ladies have carried out that sad duty. Corps of mourners – about 150 volunteers --for the Air Force, the Army and the Navy stand in as a surrogate family for veterans buried in Arlington National Cemetery. At least one Arlington Lady attends every burial – more than 3,500 a year – of a veteran in the cemetery. Arlington Ladies often are also on hand for the Arlington Cemetery funerals of military spouses.
Paula McKinley, chairwoman of the Navy Arlington Ladies, describes their role as giving comfort rather than showing sorrow. "They call us professional mourners," said McKinley, whose group also attends funerals for members of the Marine Corps, "but we are merely there to help people through the worst times and let them know that their loved one has not been forgotten."
The Arlington Ladies began with the determination of the late Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg that his service's members would never have what he called "a bleak and friendless funeral." He and his wife, the late Gladys Vandenberg, practiced what the general, the Air Force chief-of-staff in 1948, preached. Both often attended funerals for Air Force members. Soon her friends, all Air Force wives, joined them. Their constant presence at the cemetery's most solemn ceremonies earned them the nickname "The Arlington Ladies."
At an Arlington Cemetery funeral, they're often in the background, inconspicuous in ordinary clothes. Their only mark of distinction: a small lapel pin, the size of a quarter, with the military insignia of the service that they represent.
But their duties stretch beyond the graveside. For family members unable to attend, the Arlington Ladies often write a long letter describing the funeral in detail, from the weather to the other mourners, the prayers, the traditional gun salute and the poignant trumpet notes of "Taps." Often, at the request of relatives, an Arlington Lady lays a wreath on a veteran's grave for Memorial Day or places flowers at Christmas.
To do all that, the Arlington Ladies say, is a privilege. It's hard, they admit, to look into the eyes of a bereaved relative. But their mission is to help, they say.
Anna Berger, an Army Arlington Lady, often comes a long distance to fulfill that mission. She travels from New Jersey to be at the funerals. "It's my own way," Berger said, "of showing patriotism and helping others."
Some of the Arlington Ladies are spouses of people in the military. Some are mothers of military women and men. And some are veterans themselves.
The military connection for McKinley of the Navy Arlington Ladies is her husband who has served in the Navy for 30 years. If he dies before her, she said, she only wishes for one thing: "Hopefully, one day when I need someone," said McKinley, "there will be an Arlington Lady there for me."
(Find information about Arlington National Cemetery on the Web at http://www.arlingtoncemetery.com