In 1948 Gladys Vandenberg was walking down a quiet lane in Arlington Cemetery with her husband, Air Force Chief of Staff Hoyt Vandenberg, at her side. During their walk, they chanced upon a funeral and saw to their dismay that the only mourners attending the ceremony were a chaplain and a small honor guard.
Gladys must have experienced a tug on her heart-strings because she commented to her husband that no Airman should ever be buried without someone there to honor his memory. In that moment of empathy, an idea was born. Gladys decided to enlist a few of her friends, and together they formed a small volunteer group whose goal was to have one member present at any Air Force funeral in Arlington.
As the number of Air Force funerals grew, Gladys reached out to the Air Force Officers’ Wives Club and petitioned for additional volunteers. Several more women joined the effort. The group now called themselves the Arlington Ladies and for the next several decades they were the only military-related group of women who made sure no Air Force Serviceman was ever buried alone.
In 1972, The U.S. Army inaugurated their Army Arlington Ladies group, followed by the Navy Arlington Ladies in 1985. In 2006, the U.S. Coast Guard formed their Arlington Ladies. Although the U.S. Marines does not have an Arlington Ladies group, a representative from the Marines always attends a Marine funeral at Arlington.
Military funerals can be very precise and formal, with the clip-clop of six horses pulling a funeral caisson with its flag-draped casket to the grave site. It is here that the Arlington Ladies add a touch of humanity and humility as the mournful notes of Taps drift across the sacred burial grounds.
The Ladies still stand today, proudly in the rain or snow, or humid heat of a Washington summer. They are there to honor the deceased. Regardless, if the serviceman’s family is in attendance, or if he or she is being buried alone, an Arlington Lady stands her vigil at the grave site.
Known for its more famous graves, President John F. Kennedy, his brother Robert Kennedy, and the tomb of the unknown soldier, Arlington is the final resting place for 400,000 souls. An average of 28 funeral services occurs each weekday.
My father was a WWII veteran who survived D-Day, June 6, 1944. Three years ago, on the 70th anniversary of that momentous battle, I had the opportunity to visit Normandy, France and walk the beaches of D-Day. I knew I was treading on hallowed ground and I saluted up into the sky to acknowledge where my father had been one of the first U.S. Airmen to drop bombs over Utah Beach, early on the morning of June 6th.
Later, I journeyed to the Normandy American Cemetery. Each visitor was given a rose to place upon a grave. I fanned out through the grounds, reading gravestone after gravestone and noting the young ages of the men who had died. I came to one stone that read, “This soldier is known only to God.” I placed my rose on his tombstone and whispered, “You are not forgotten.”
I made that gesture for one serviceman, but thanks to Gladys Vandenberg, thousands of servicemen and servicewomen have an Arlington Lady at their funeral to let them know they are not forgotten.
I salute you, Gladys Vandenberg, for your caring heart and unselfish actions to ensure the military deceased at Arlington are not left alone during the final salute.