As an Arlington Lady, Paula McKinley knows that the role is not for the faint of heart. While she has attended hundreds of funerals over the years, one in particular stands out, when the nine-year-old daughter of a deceased service member pointed to the casket and asked if mommy was in there.
“Yes, sweetie, she is,” McKinley said as she fought to maintain her composure, something usual for someone in her role.
“I got up and headed to the car and the tears were just rolling,” she said.
The Arlington Ladies, a group of volunteers who attend funeral services at Arlington National Cemetery, ensure that no soldier, sailor, airman or coastie is buried alone.
Begun in 1948, the group was created when Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Hoyt Vandenberg, and his wife, Gladys, routinely attended funerals and noticed that some services had only a military chaplain present. Vandenberg asked her friends to start attending services and their efforts grew into a group that would come to be known as the Arlington Ladies.
Today, the Air Force, Army, Navy and Coast Guard all have Arlington Ladies who perform similar volunteer duties, attending funeral services for active duty service members and veterans. The Marines do not officially have a group, as they send a representative of the Marine Commandant to every funeral.
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The Arlington Ladies are an official part of the funeral service, representing the military service’s chief of staff or equivalent. During the service, they present cards of condolences to the next of kin from the service chief and spouse. According to McKinley, who serves as chairman of the Navy Arlington Ladies (NAL), the group should not be seen as professional mourners, rather as a support system for the families.
During the service, each family is also presented with a handwritten note from the Arlington Lady herself. McKinley says the ladies write from their own hearts and letters show, in the case of the NALs, “that the Navy has not forgotten about you and you are still part of our family.”
McKinley, who was a Navy spouse for more than 20 years before her husband retired, began volunteering with the group in 1991. “I knew I wanted to do it because I’d met so many wonderful people through the Navy. I’d been to so many wonderful places because of the Navy.”
“I feel like I was there for my best friends,” McKinley said, noting how rewarding the work has been.
After attending the funeral of her husband’s former boss, Navy spouse Katie Earle (also retired) was tremendously moved by the role of the Arlington Lady in the service. “I knew this is something I wanted to do,” she said.
In the seven years since she’s been involved, she’s seen many different types of funerals, including services where no next of kin was present. For Earle, the act of honoring the service of the deceased is paramount even if she and her escort are the only ones in attendance. If this is the case, she is presented with the flag, takes the time to honor the deceased’s service and then bids fair winds and following seas to the service member.
In the case of most funerals, the role of the Arlington Lady is to represent the service branch to offer condolence, support the family and honor the veteran or service member.
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For Earle, the presence of an Arlington Lady helps families understand more about their father, mother, sister or brother and the importance of their service. “If the Navy cares this much about them, this must have been an important aspect of their life.”
In addition to the grief, there have been many joyful reflections of life well-lived according to McKinley.
At a funeral for a WWII vet, two of the deceased’s friends shared tales of his heroism after their ship was hit by a Kamikaze pilot.
“It was only at his graveside that the family learned the story of how he kept others alive floating in a raft in the Pacific,” she said. “He was a hero and no one else knew it.”
For McKinley, these are the important stories you don’t see on a headstone at Arlington.
“Every person buried at Arlington is a hero, a hero to someone,” McKinley said. “When you go to Arlington, give a tap on the headstone as you walk by and think about that.”
(Editor’s Note): Due to COVID-19, Arlington National Cemetery has instituted a variety of precautionary measures, including the suspending the work of the Arlington Ladies. For the latest information about when their work will resume, visit: https://www.arlingtoncemetery.mil/COVID.Read comments