The stranger couldn't help herself. Attending the funeral of an Iraq war veteran at Arlington National Cemetery in 2006, she leaned over and gently kissed the forehead of the fallen soldier's widow and mother.
For the woman who sensed palpable grief, it was a natural thing to do. But as an Arlington Lady, an official representative of four United States military arms dispatched to military funerals, it was a breach of policy. After the service, she was reprimanded by her supervisor. The Arlington Ladies have a very specific role. They are not there to grieve or console, but to make certain no soldier is ever buried alone.
Hoyt Vandenberg, Chief of Staff for the United States Air Force, was driving to his office in the Pentagon in 1948 when he noticed a funeral being conducted at Virginia's Arlington National Cemetery. There was no sea of crisp uniforms or sobbing family members. Aside from the chaplain and the Honor Guard, there was no one there at all.
Vandenberg didn’t like it. Soldiers, he felt, deserved the presence of at least one civilian to bear witness to their burial. His wife, Gladys, agreed. She set about recruiting friends and wives of the enlisted to begin attending Air Force funerals, even though many of the deceased were complete strangers. They called themselves the Officers Wives Club and acted as both military representatives and as proxies for family members who might not be able to afford to travel to Arlington for services.
By 1973, the Army had formed its own version. In 1985, the Navy followed suit. And in 2006, the Coast Guard organized a group of their own. (The Marines send a Commandant representative to funerals.) Collectively, the roughly 150 women are known as the Arlington Ladies.
Participation is usually by invitation only, with the group largely made up of ex-military members or their spouses 40 years and older. If a woman is invited to join, she is first instructed to sit at funerals as an apprentice, observing the customs of the role depending on which branch of service she’s been assigned.
Naval Ladies are given a sheet that details the deceased’s biography, rank, service awards, and passing. They’re allowed to briefly introduce themselves to family prior to services; after the widow or other attendee is given the folded American flag, the Arlington representative approaches the bereaved to offer condolences and two cards—one from her, and one from the Chief of Staff. When they’re finished, they walk backwards; turning their back on the flag is prohibited.
Their duties don’t end there. If a family member is unable to attend, a Lady will write a letter offering details of the service—what was said, what the weather was like, and what she felt during the proceedings. They’ll also extend an opportunity to tend to the deceased’s grave by placing flowers on it on anniversaries or holidays.
If family members are present, the Lady is a welcome sight: although they have a dress code (no slacks or loud colors), they help ease the tension of a highly structured military funeral. If no members are present, then the Lady acts as a surrogate witness to a soldier being laid to rest.
The Ladies are expected to maintain their composure, however difficult it may be. The organization’s chair, Margaret Mensch, told The Washington Post in 2007 that she tries her best not to tear up, even when it’s a former Honor Guard escort of hers that was being buried. "You are still," she said. "You just don't cry. When I got there, I thought, 'Just concentrate on that leaf on that tree over there.' A military funeral is very dignified. Very precise. It may sound cold, but that's the beauty of it."
A mourner typically volunteers one day a month. With more than 30 funerals at Arlington a day, she might attend up to six during a single shift. Doreen Huylebroeck, whose late husband was a chief petty officer, has attended more than 500 since beginning work in 2009.
Getting an Arlington Lady to discuss her duties on the record can be daunting. Most are averse to publicity, wary that someone might think of them as self-congratulatory. A portion of the Army's contingent, however, had to endure some recognition in 2015, when Army Chief of Staff General Ray Odierno held a reception to acknowledge the Ladies for their selfless service.
"There's no more important time than when a family is going through the incredible grief of loss … that they understand the Army is there for them and you all make that a little easier by what you do," he told the women. "By letting them know that we do care about them, so for me this is very important for us to have you here to thank you for helping our soldiers, past and present, as they continue to serve through difficult times."
The Ladies were cordial, but the session was brief. Seven funerals were still scheduled for that day.