Rising death toll in Iraq complicates Arlington tradition
The women who serve as Arlington Ladies take their duties seriously.
WASHINGTON -- On a winter day when the rows and rows of white headstones were shrouded in a band of low-lying mist at Arlington National Cemetery, Jane Newman took her place in the white-gloved military honor guard. As the ashes of the latest fallen soldier arrived, she placed her hand over her heart in the civilian salute.
She didn't know this soldier or the family that shuffled behind his urn, shoulders stooped in grief. As usual, she knew only his name, Keith Fiscus. His age, 26. His years of service in the Army, four, and the names of his next of kin. Yet when she went through the paperwork that morning, she felt a pang. He was one more soldier killed in Iraq.
When she was invited five years ago to become an Army Arlington Lady, Newman, the wife of a 30-year Army artillery officer and herself a retired Army nurse, was drawn to the group's mission: that no soldier is ever buried alone. Every fourth Tuesday of the month, she spends the day at Arlington, standing graveside, hand over heart, at up to six funerals a day.
How it has changed
When she started, most of the soldiers she was burying were World War II veterans or soldiers who had lived long lives. Handing a condolence card on behalf of the Army chief of staff and saying a few kind words from the "Army family" to a grieving widow was never easy. But these days, as the death toll from the Iraq war has topped 3,000 and many of the buried are young soldiers, Newman and other Arlington Ladies are finding it difficult to do their solemn duty. Some have asked to be excused.
"I find myself saying, 'Stiff upper lip, Jane,"' she said after a funeral. "'Stiff upper lip."'
An Arlington Lady does not cry. An Arlington Lady is not a professional mourner. She is not a grief counselor, according to their strict Standard Operating Procedure. She is there simply so that somebody is. Since 1973, when the Army chief of staff's wife saw a veteran's funeral with no one attending, an Army Arlington Lady, in muted civilian dress and often muddy pumps, has stood graveside at every funeral at Arlington as the personal representative of the chief of staff. Occasionally, she is the only one there.
She is part of a society open only to military wives or widows and then only to those invited to join. The Navy ladies formed in 1985. The much smaller Air Force had Arlington Ladies as far back as 1948. Now, the Navy, Air Force and Army have about 50 Arlington Ladies each. The Marines do not want to participate. The Marines take care of their own, the groups have been told.
Arlington Ladies adhere to a strict dress code -- no slacks, no bright colors. Sunglasses are permitted at all times. They stand at attention with the honor guard. Their role in the ceremony is brief: When the flag has been presented to the grieving family, they approach, offer a few words of comfort and a handwritten note and back away, never once turning their backs on the flag.
"We add a little more personal touch to the military funeral," explained Margaret Mensch, chair of the Army Arlington Ladies. "Yet not too personal."
Getting too personal got one Arlington Lady in trouble last year. After a particularly emotional funeral in section 60, where the dead from Iraq and Afghanistan are buried, she kissed the foreheads of the widow and mother. "She was reprimanded for that," Mensch said.
But it was just that gesture that Cindy Upchurch, the mother of Spc. Clinton Upchurch, who was killed by a makeshift bomb in Iraq, needed that day. "It was a blessing," she said recently. "I don't remember who the Arlington Lady was, but she was elderly and she was so kind. You could tell she was heartbroken. And at that point in a mother's life, when you've lost a child in a violent death, in a war, you need some human touch."
Lt. Col. William Barefield, Arlington's senior Army chaplain, says he sees Arlington Ladies as healers. "I watch the families. After we present the flag, you sense a little bit of sadness, like 'Oh, it's over,"' he said. And that's when the Arlington Ladies walk into what he calls the "eye of the storm -- the unbelievable sorrow for a death in war. They represent someone at the highest level of government. It's an acknowledgment that this life was one of a kind."
Their duty days are still filled with the funerals of old veterans. Of all the troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, fewer than 300 are buried at Arlington National Cemetery. "Some are so young," Mensch said, "the families want them closer to home."
Mensch has been attending funerals, stoic and tearless, for nearly 30 years. But the young ones killed in combat are difficult.
When one of the dead on her schedule one day turned out to be her former honor guard escort, killed in Iraq, she had to steel herself. "You are still. You just don't cry. When I got there, I thought, 'Just concentrate on that leaf on that tree over there,"' she said. "A military funeral is very dignified. Very precise. It may sound cold, but that's the beauty of it."
Alba Thompson, an Army Arlington Lady, gets down on her knee and touches the hand of the widow or mother. It's hard, regardless of age, to approach what she calls this "sacred space."
But it's especially hard when it's a young widow. Once, a widow wore a strapless dress. She caught herself wondering: Had she never been to a funeral before? Or was this his favorite dress?
"I tell them, 'I don't know what I can say right now to make you feel better. Just remember that thousands of people come through here, and when they see the name of your husband or your son, they'll know he was a good and honorable man. They'll know he served his country,"' she said. "Some of them nod, and some of them are bitter."