Arlington Ladies Pay Tribute To Fallen Soldiers

The Arlington Ladies believe that no death should go unmourned. How do they make sure that happens? The group of women attend people's funerals, even though they don't know them. NPR's Petra Mayer caught up with a few of the ladies at Arlington National Cemetery during this week's Veterans Day celebrations.

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GUY RAZ, host:

Bob, before you go.

MONDELLO: Uh-huh.

RAZ: You were telling us earlier this week, when you were working on this movie review, that it brought back some memories about your dad's own funeral at Arlington Cemetery.

MONDELLO: Well, it did because he well, you know, he served in Korea and in World War II, and so he was entitled to burial at Arlington. And when we went there, there was an extra mourner, someone we didn't recognize. It was a woman, and I was really struck by it. And we found out afterwards that she was one of the Arlington Ladies. And I'd never heard of this group, but I was just fascinated by them.

RAZ: Well, we actually sent our producer, Petra Mayer, out to Arlington Cemetery this past week to meet some of those ladies, Bob, and here's your story.

PETRA MAYER: Actually, the ladies don't like being called mourners.

Ms.�JOANNE BARRE(ph): That's almost an insult to call us a mourner because that's not what we are. We are here to thank them, you know, for service and to be sure that no one is ever buried alone.

MAYER: That's Joanne Barre, one of the Army Arlington Ladies. She says the group is there to represent the chief of staff of the United States Army. Each branch of the service, except the Marines, has its own contingent of ladies. At 2,000 funerals a year, you'll find an Arlington Lady standing quietly in the background, only stepping forward to present a condolence card to the family if the family is there. Sometimes they're not, as in the case of one homeless veteran.

Ms. BARRE: He absolutely had no one, not anybody here, except the woman who was at the food pantry where he used to eat cared enough about him to see if he qualified to be buried here. And the only people that day were the lady who had gone through all the trouble to see if he could be buried there, another social worker and the Arlington Lady, and I was the Arlington Lady that day. That's probably the one I'll never forget.

MAYER: Two ladies are on duty every single day at Arlington, but today, there are dozens of them braving the rain to lay a wreath at the tomb of the unknown soldier.

Unidentified Man: Ladies and gentlemen, may I have your attention please? The ceremony that you're about to witness is an Army ceremony, (unintelligible) Army Arlington Ladies.

MAYER: It's a raw, November day. Spits of rain are dusting across the ground, and the wind is buffeted the tourists clustered on the slick, marble steps by the tomb. Margaret Mensch is the chairman of the Army Arlington Ladies. She says the weather never stops her.

Ms.�MARGARET MENSCH (Chairman, Army Arlington Ladies): This is Arlington Lady weather because we go out like this and snow, and very few times, we haven't had services, and it's cold out there.

MAYER: It's especially cold if you're sticking to the Arlington Lady dress code.

Ms. MENSCH: We're not allowed to wear slacks. So we do have a dress code, which we strictly adhere to.

MAYER: The Army ladies have been attending funerals, rain or shine, since 1973, but the tradition actually began a few decades earlier, with the Air Force. In 1947, then-Chief of Staff Hoyt Vandenberg noticed that many airmen had no family or friends at their funerals. His wife Gladys(ph) began organizing other officers' wives to attend funerals, a tradition which grew into today's Arlington Ladies. Again, Joanne Barre.

Ms.�BARRE: We don't do it for glory, and we don't do it for publicity. We do it because most of our husbands or sometimes the Arlington lady themselves have served in the military, and we know how important it is and what gift they've given.

MAYER: Barre says going to so many funerals can sometimes be emotionally overwhelming, but she says being there, day after day, is her way of showing respect for the military. With Arlington Ladies standing by, no one has to go into the ground alone.

Petra Mayer, NPR News.

(Soundbite of song, "Taps")

RAZ: Several victims of the November 5 shooting at Fort Hood were laid to rest today.

Hundreds of people lined the streets of Plymouth, Indiana, as a white hearse carrying 32-year-old Army Staff Sergeant Justin DeCrow drove by.

In Norman, Oklahoma, 22-year-old Army Specialist Jason Dean Hunt was remembered as a decided soldier and husband. He was married only three months at the time of the shooting.

Mourners in Kiel, Wisconsin, stood in line to view Staff Sergeant Amy Kreuger. The 29-year-old joined the U.S. Army Reserves after the 2001 terrorist attacks.

(Soundbite of music)

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