A cool breeze swept through Arlington National Cemetery on a warm June morning as a horse-drawn carriage embarked on a solemn procession for the final salute to Navy Captain Joseph Millerick and his wife, Juanita.
Gathered around the gravesite were loved ones and several-dozen sailors dressed in sparkling white uniforms.
Paula McKinley was also there, and while she is not related to Capt. Millerick or his wife, she considers herself family.
She is an Arlington Lady, a member of an all-volunteer organization of women who ensure that every service at Arlington is attended.
“The purpose of the Arlington Lady is to make sure that no soldier, airman, Coast Guardsman, or sailor is buried alone,” says Ms. McKinley, chairman of the Navy Arlington Ladies. “I represent the Navy family.”
The first Arlington Ladies were organized in 1948. Then Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Hoyt Vandenberg and his wife, Gladys, were walking through Arlington during lunch and noticed that some memorial services had no loved ones present. Moved with sadness, Mrs. Vandenberg began to attend services herself and organized her friends to join her.
In 1973, an Army group was formed, followed by counterparts in the Navy in 1985 and the Coast Guard in 2006. Today, there are nearly 170 Arlington Ladies, with the Marine Corps being the only branch without them.
Each branch conducts its own ceremonies a bit differently at the cemetery, located just outside Washington D.C. in Arlington, Va., McKinley says. But the Ladies have a basic responsibility at every service.
Each Lady wears respectful, muted civilian attire and is escorted by the Honor Guard for Army, Air Force, and Coast Guard ceremonies, and the Navy Ceremonial Guard for Navy ceremonies, to the gravesite, where she stands solemnly during the procession and ceremony.
Immediately after the flag is presented to the next-of-kin, McKinley says, the Lady presents the official condolence card from the head of each service, along with a handwritten note.
During the brief interaction, she also offers gratitude on behalf of the branch for the family’s sacrifice, as well as for their support of the deceased and for the opportunity to pay tribute at the gravesite.
McKinley is quick to point out that the Arlington Ladies are not professional mourners.
“We are not mourners, and this is not sad. This is an honor,” she says. “I need to be here for my families, for my Navy family.”
Another important aspect of the Arlington Ladies, McKinley says, is the long-term bond they form with families. About 4 to 6 weeks after the funeral, the Lady sends the next-of-kin another card, letting them know she is always there to help.
The Ladies often continue to communicate with families weeks, months, or even years later. They might send a photo of the headstone or undertake a more personal request, such as laying a wreath or placing flowers at a gravesite on special occasions.
“If I’m still here, I’m still here for you,” McKinley tells the families.
For her, learning about those being honored at Arlington is especially rewarding.
“Every single person who is buried at Arlington is a hero, and there’s a story that goes with every headstone,” she says. “It’s not on the headstone. I wish there was room to put it on the headstone.”
She remembers one ceremony in which the deceased had heroically helped to save the lives of his crew after their ship sunk. He insisted that the story be kept a secret until his death and was shared with his family at the gravesite.
The Arlington Ladies range in age from 20 to 80 and are often spouses of active or retired service members, or are retired military themselves.
For the Army Ladies, members must receive a referral from a current Lady; in the Air Force, new members must be in the Officers’ Wives’ Club; and in the Navy and Coast Guard, members much have some connection to the branch. Training consists of attending several ceremonies to learn the procedures.
Arlington Ladies attend funerals of all denominations and races, and regardless of the weather.
There is no telling how many services there will be in a given day. Arlington averages 28 per day, Monday through Friday. More than 300,000 remains are buried beneath its fields of white crosses and in its columbarium courts.
McKinley says that she prefers not to think about the possibility of attending a service at Arlington for her husband, a retired Navy Captain.
She knows that one day she might be sitting in the spouse's chair, she says. But if that happens, "there will be a Navy Arlington Lady out there to give me support.”