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Arlington Ladies Make Sure No Soldier, Sailor, Airman, Marine or Coast Guardsman Is Buried Alone

May 15, 2018

Funerals at Arlington National Cemetery are full of ceremony, honor and military precision. The Arlington Ladies provide a personal touch to those who mourn and a comforting presence when family members are unable to attend their loved one’s funeral. As Memorial Day approaches, we’d like to thank the Arlington Ladies for their generous service in honoring the fallen.

Photo credit: United States Army

On any given weekday, there may be up to thirty military funerals at Arlington National Cemetery. A group of about 200 volunteers makes sure to attend every one of those funerals. No matter the weather, no matter the season, no matter the rank of the individual, the funeral for every active-duty or veteran soldier, sailor, airman, Marine or Coast Guardsman is attended by one of the Arlington Ladies. A lady, and sometimes a man, typically volunteers one day a month, and she or he might attend up to six funerals during a single shift.

Margaret Mensch, the chair of the Army Ladies, told NBC News in 2010, “It doesn’t matter whether we are burying a four-star general or a private, they all deserve to have someone say thank you at their grave.”

Following the presentation of a folded American flag to the next of kin, one of the Arlington Ladies, dressed appropriately in a dark suit, approaches the family to provide comfort and a friendly face. She hands the family two envelopes – one contains a formal condolence card from the armed service’s chief of staff and the other is a handwritten note from the Arlington Lady with personal messages, often after researching the service member online. If there are no family members present, the Arlington Lady will accept the flag on their behalf. Afterwards, she often writes to the family to describe the funeral services, including the weather, the military honors bestowed on the service member, and any other details she feels are important to include. Some ladies offer to tend to the deceased’s grave by placing flowers on it for anniversaries or holidays.

The Arlington Ladies began in 1948 after Air Force chief of staff Gen. Hoyt Vandenberg and his wife, Gladys, noticed an airman being buried without any family members present, only a chaplain and honor guard. They felt that someone from the Air Force family should always be there, so, Gladys recruited her friends at the Officers’ Wives Club to attend all Air Force funerals. The other branches of the armed services followed, including Army, Navy, Coast Guard, and in 2016, the Marines.

In the beginning, the women attended the funerals by themselves. Eventually, military escorts were added when it was decided that the Arlington Ladies should be an official part of the ceremony. The escorts are members of the Army’s 3rd Infantry Regiment. The Army soldiers typically spend four months as escorts while the Navy sailors are permanently assigned and will spend their entire tours on assignment.

The group initially included military wives, but it now includes military daughters and even a gentleman or two. The Army Arlington ladies must be wives or widows of Army men and be referred by a current wife. The Navy and Air Force follow similar requirements for their ladies.

In 2017, Marla Viekman, chair of the Coast Guard Arlington Ladies, told the official blog for the Coast Guard Workforce, “It’s a special honor to be able to do this because I know I could be seated at that next-of-kin chair, and I would want somebody to soften the pain of that day and just to be supportive. You have the military ceremony, and that’s beautiful, but you need to be personal. You really need that personal touch. And that’s why it is so meaningful, too. Because we could all be there.”

Thank you, Arlington Ladies, for your selfless devotion in honoring our fallen heroes and comforting their loved ones.

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