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Bearing witness – The Arlington Ladies

Photographs: United States Department of Defense via Wikimedia Commons

Photographs: United States Department of Defense via Wikimedia Commons

The U.S. has a long and proud tradition of honoring the men and women who have served the nation, with a military funeral service.

Since 1948, there’s also been another, quiet tradition, begun to ensure that no soldier, sailor, airman or coast guardsman goes to their grave at Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia, without someone to stand by and think of them.

The remarkable people who have been bearing witness for almost 70 years are the Arlington Ladies, an almost 200-strong volunteer corps of wives and daughters, as well as active and veteran servicewomen, who consider it their duty to ensure that each and every person laid to rest is never alone at their military honors funeral.

Rain, snow or shine, the volunteers’ presence has become an official part of every funeral service here, with between 27 and 30 held every week day and up to eight on Saturdays.

An Arlington Lady is acccompanied as she pays her respects to the fallen at Arlington National Cemetery

One Arlington lady, Doreen Huylebroeck, revealed why she signed up as a volunteer, saying she “wanted to give something back” after mourning the death of her own husband, Chief Petty Officer Edward Huylebroeck.

She told Stars and Stripes magazine: “The military person is a hero and he deserves it. It’s just a special way to honor him and be there. It’s our way of saying thank you to him for his service.”

Arlington is now the final resting place of more than 400,000 men and women who served the nation and given a military burial. It was here in 1948 that Gladys Vandenberg, wife of Air Force Chief of Staff, General Hoyt Vandenberg, noticed that at some veterans funeral services, only the chaplain was present.

Dismayed these souls had no family of their own present to mourn them, she rallied her friends to attend the funeral services, so that no fallen hero or veteran would go to their grave alone. As time passed, Mrs Vandenberg’s league of ladies inspired wives of men from the other services to follow suit and form groups.

A lone Coast Guard Auxiliarist plays taps

Since 2006, the Air Force, Army, Navy and Coast Guard have all had Arlington Ladies attending funeral services for active duty service members and veterans. Only the Marines do not officially have an Arlington Ladies group, as they send a representative of the Marine Commandant to every funeral.

At Arlington, the women bear witness, offering kind words in sympathy and presenting cards of condolence and a handwritten note to the next of kin. No matter how difficult the circumstances, their unwritten rule is never weep, although some will confide that inside, sometimes they feel like their heart could break.

They are there, too, for those who died alone, for the young and for the old who are bid farewell with military honors. Taps are sounded on the bugle, a final salute is made and, as the ones who served the nation are laid to rest, the Arlington Ladies will remember them.

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