In 1948, Air Force Chief of Staff General Hoyt Vandenburg and his wife Gladys paid a visit to Arlington National Cemetery. As they stood among the rows of headstones, they noticed a funeral in progress. An airman was being laid to rest among the nation's heroes. But there were no mourners; just the honor guard and the chaplain. It's unclear if the airman had no family, or they simply couldn't afford the trip to his funeral.
General and Mrs. Vandenburg were stunned and saddened by what they witnessed that day. After she returned from the cemetery, Mrs. Vandenburg organized a group of Air Force wives to attend the funerals of all fallen airmen--to ensure that none were buried alone. Army and Navy wives quickly followed suit, and the Arlington ladies were born.
Seven decades later, the ladies still maintain their vigil, attending every funeral held at Arlington. In a remarkably moving account, Helen O'Neill of the Associated Press tells the story of these remarkable volunteers:
Always elegantly dressed, often in hats and gloves. Always standing, hand over heart, a respectful distance from the grave. Always mindful of history.
The ladies know every inch of Arlington's 624 manicured acres, from the stones of freed slaves marked "unknown citizens" to the grave of the first soldier interred here (Private William Christman, a farmer from Pennsylvania who fought in the Civil War) to Section 60, where the men and women who lost their lives in the current wars are buried.
"So many stones, so many stories," says Paula Mckinley, head of the Navy ladies, as she drives through the cemetery one recent spring day, stopping at a section not far from the throngs of tourists at President John F. Kennedy's grave. Baldwin. Curtis. Sanchez. She walks among their headstones reciting their names.
With her booming voice, red hair tucked under a straw hat, and brisk manner, Mckinley, whose husband is a retired Navy officer, is a striking figure. But she is subdued by the graves, reverential. "They all deserve to be remembered, and to be visited," she says.
McKinley, who has been an Arlington lady for 21 years, drives a little further. She stops by a grove of willow oaks, searching for a specific plot.
"Here you are, sweetheart," she says, gently touching the stone of a young woman Navy officer who died in an accident at the age of 25. The officer's mother called from California one day — on her daughter's birthday — and asked if an Arlington lady could put flowers on the grave. Now McKinley visits regularly. She says it's the least she can do.
These days, Arlington is a busy place. World War II-era veterans are leaving us at a rate of 1,000 every week. Our population of Korea and Vietnam vets is aging, and of course, there are the young women and men who give their lives in Afghanistan and Iraq. On an average day, there are 30 funerals at the cemetery; an Arlington Lady is present for each one.
In an era when many Americans are increasingly disconnected from the military, the service and patriotism of the Arlington ladies is both inspiring and reassuring. On this Memorial Day (and every day), there are those who still remembers the sacrifice of our nation's heroes, and those who are leave behind.