Day by Day

Tuesday, May 31, 2005

The Arlington Ladies

Amazing story.

ONE AFTERNOON towards the end of March, 200 mourners slowly trekked under a bright blue sky to the plot where 20-year-old Army Pfc. Michael Anthony Arciola was about to become the 123rd soldier killed during Operation Iraqi Freedom laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery. Arciola, a recipient of both the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star, was shot and killed on patrol in Al Ramadi on February 15. The larger than usual crowd was no surprise. The young man had been so well loved in his hometown of Elmsford, New York, that more than a thousand people came to his memorial service there. Dying young carries with it an implicit sense of tragedy that draws people -- emotionally and physically -- to it.

Nevertheless, Pfc. Arciola was not the only one laid to rest that Friday at Arlington. Sixteen other servicemen, most of them veterans many years older than Arciola, were likewise buried. An average week at Arlington will see between 80 and 100 burials on its 612 acres, and the final week of March was within that margin. Arciola's funeral was the largest the cemetery had held in a few weeks. Others attracted dozens or fewer mourners. A smattering had no friends or loved ones in attendance at all.

As in most matters, however, the military prefers to focus on cohesion rather than dissension; on the ties that bind rather than the walls that separate. This is as true of funerals as it is of boot camp. Most people are aware of one aspect of this, the Honor Guard. But there is another unifying element, much less publicized than the 21-gun salute, but just as important in both a practical and symbolic sense. It comes in the form of a conservatively dressed woman who -- whether amongst a throng of mourners, seated alongside the family, or standing as the sole attendee -- is there to help shepherd the fallen soldier during his final mile.

These volunteer women are known as "The Arlington Ladies." They attend every funeral at Arlington to ensure, first and foremost, that no soldier is ever buried with no one in attendance, and second, to serve the needs of family members, whether they are present at the funeral or not.

Normally it isn't difficult to get someone to go on record about a noble pursuit. The first reaction to the prospect of a laudatory article is rarely reticence. But this group of no-nonsense women did not jump at the chance to talk about themselves. In fact, they were surprisingly difficult to track down at all. This is probably at least partially because the vast majority of Arlington Ladies are either retired servicewomen themselves or from military families, a culture not given to bragging.

"They don't seek publicity," Army Major Kevin Stroop, a regimental chaplain who performs funerals at Arlington, said. "What they do here is absolutely vital to our mission, but those moments they share with the families and our servicemen and women are intensely personal. The Arlington Ladies, as a group, really are committed to keeping those moments and their work sacred."
Amazing people.

The American Spectator

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