Arlington, Va. -- The mournful notes of taps and the crackle of rifle volleys were on the wind. The flag, folded into a crisp triangle, was passed to the family. Salutes were exchanged and the military honors ended.
Then the Arlington Lady stepped forward. Murmuring to Regina Shinners, widow of Cmdr. John E. Shinners Sr. of Towson, she delivered a personal note and condolence cards from the chief of naval operations and the commandant of the Washington Naval District.
Part comforter, part record-keeper, part referee, the Arlington Lady keeps alive a military tradition begun nearly 50 years ago -- ensuring that no one is buried alone at Arlington National Cemetery, which sees about 100 funerals each week.
Currently there are 150 Arlington Ladies, who represent the uniformed chiefs of the Army, Navy and Air Force at funerals. Recently, the group got its first Arlington Gentleman: William Widnall, an aeronautical engineer and husband of Air Force Secretary Sheila Widnall.
"Military funerals are not about mourning, They're about service to the country," said Suellen Lansell, wife of a retired Air Force colonel and chairman of that service's Ladies since 1993. "We are not there to mourn. We are there to celebrate their lives, a remembrance of that person's service."
"It's a thank-you to that family for their loved one's service. We're more for support than anything because most of the time we don't know these people," said Paula McKinley, the Arlington Lady at Commander Shinners' funeral. The wife of a retired Navy captain, she is chairman of the Navy's Arlington Ladies.
Still, the women share common experience, as military wives or as military veterans themselves. Thus, personal feelings inevitably arise.
Last month, Connie Watts of Fairfax, Va., represented the Air Force at the funeral of Capt. John R. Dunham, whose remains were recovered last year, 42 years after his photo-reconnaissance plane was shot down off northern Japan. "The Dunham funeral was more poignant for me because of my father, who was a prisoner-of-war during the Korean War. It's an extension of my Air Force family," said Mrs. Watts, whose husband, Keith, is a retired colonel.
The Arlington Lady tradition began in 1947, as American dead from far-flung battlefields were being returned for re-interment in Arlington National Cemetery.
Driving through the cemetery to his Pentagon office, Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg, then Air Force chief of staff, observed a funeral with no one but the chaplain and honor guard in attendance. Everyone deserves to have someone there at the end, General Vandenberg told his wife, Gladys. She began to attend funerals, and as the number of burials increased, she asked friends to help and the Arlington Ladies were born.
But until 1973, when the dead from the Vietnam War began arriving in large numbers, there were only Air Force Ladies. The Army organized its volunteers that year; the Navy in 1985. The Marine Corps and the Coast Guard send representatives from their headquarters.
The Arlington Ladies serve one day a month on a rotating schedule but may be called for extra duty if the workload is too heavy. They attend at least two funerals on a duty day. Many have done as many as five and, in one case, six.
They comfort bereaved families, and will do just about anything for them "except set up a reception afterward," Mrs. McKinley said with a laugh. Often, families send money for flowers for the grave and ask for photos.
Nancy Schado, an Arlington Lady since 1975 and chairman of the Army's Ladies, said a mother wrote to ask if the Ranger emblem could be carved into the headstone of her son, who was killed in Vietnam. "We had it done and I sent her pictures," she said, adding that sometimes she takes notes on funerals, the weather and the ceremony, to send to families who cannot attend.
But funerals, like weddings, often bring out the worst in people.
During a Navy funeral at the Fort Myer Chapel, the dead man's first wife arrived and, on seeing that he had been cremated, shouted, "What the hell have they done to George?"
A collision between the first and second wives was averted, "but I had no training being a referee," said Mrs. McKinley. Wife No. 1 had to be convinced that "she was a former wife, not the widow, and would not receive a flag from the casket."
Another time, she said, a family dispute over whether a man's cremated remains should be buried in a grave or placed in a niche in the columbarium led to a dual ceremony, at the columbarium and at a fake gravesite.
And once, when a daughter told her mother that she could not bear to go through her father's funeral, the mother understood, Mrs. McKinley recounted. As the ceremony began, "the mother said to me, 'I need a stick,' " Mrs. McKinley said. "I thought she meant a cane and I said she could lean on me. 'No, no,' the widow said, 'I want a stick to hit a bunch of these so-called relatives and friends for complaining about my daughter not being here.' "
Humor emerges inevitably amid the sadness. Mrs. McKinley recalled an incident in which the coffin and its occupant were so heavy that one of the young sailor-pallbearers lost his balance and fell into the grave. "They had to stop everything and fish him out," she said.
Most Ladies come from the Washington area, including Maryland LTC and Northern Virginia. Mrs. Schado said one Army Lady travels from Pennsylvania for her duty day.
After indoctrination in the traditions of the cemetery and the procedures of military funerals, apprentice Ladies get on-the-job training. They attend several funerals as observers until they are ready to solo.
While some volunteers have quit because their emotional involvement was too great, particularly after losses in their own families, others have served for years despite constant reminders of loss.
"We do it because we care and so that no one will ever, regardless of rank, be buried alone," Mrs. Schado said. "We owe them all so much and we'll always be there."