Health, Wellness & the Good Life
The morning is gray with a chilly drizzle as the old airman’s very basic coffin is respectfully drawn from the back of the hearse. He has died with no remaining family or friends, but there is a mourner under an umbrella waiting at his graveside. She is an Arlington Lady.
This touching tradition began in 1948 when then-Air Force Chief of Staff, Gen. Hoyt Vandenberg, and his wife, Gladys, noticed some airmen — often ones being returned from their World War II deaths overseas — were buried with only a chaplain and honor guard to lay them to their final rest.
For a while, Mrs. Vandenberg attended funerals when there were no other mourners, but her dedication soon became overwhelming and other Air Force wives started sharing her commitment by creating the Arlington Committee.
Today, nearly 70 years later, there is an Arlington Lady at every Air Force funeral — whether for an active duty troop, veteran or retiree. She’s there in snow and heat and wind and rain. She writes a sympathy card and presents it to the surviving family on behalf of the Air Force Chief of Staff. If no loved ones are present, she writes the family a letter describing the ceremony to be sent with the card. If there is no family, she simply holds the airman in her heart.
The Army, Navy, and Coast Guard have established their own Arlington Lady programs, while a representative of the Commandant of the Marines attends every Corps service.
Arlington Ladies steel themselves not to be emotional, but to be a quiet part of the ceremony. “It’s so hard not to weep when they play Taps,” admits one Arlington Lady, “but I cry later.” Her name isn’t important, she says, because she is there as something far more important than herself. “I’m there to represent that service member’s friends and family and military buddies. I represent the entire nation saying Thank You and Godspeed.”
When Lynn’s husband was stationed at the Pentagon, she was the Air Force Arlington Lady on the fourth Thursday of each month. Sometimes she was at funerals with a horse-drawn caisson and hundreds in attendance, but sometimes she was the only mourner. She and her now-retired Air Force husband live in Charlottesville, Virginia.