- The Washington Times - Monday, May 31, 2004

Paula McKinley stood beside her Navy escort as the caisson led by six black horses clattered past, towing the flag-draped casket of Lt. j.g. Frederic Leon Geisendorf.

Mrs. McKinley of Fairfax never met Lt. Geisendorf, 94, or four of his surviving family members who attended the full-honors funeral at Arlington National Cemetery on Friday.

Nevertheless, she was there to pay her respects, as she has at thousands of funerals before.

Mrs. McKinley, 58, is chairwoman of the Navy’s Arlington Ladies, a program that sends a representative to every Navy funeral at Arlington National Cemetery. She has been attending funerals for Arlington Ladies for 13 years.

“I do this to make certain that no serviceman is buried alone,” said Mrs. McKinley, the wife of a retired Navy captain. “They are all a hero, and they should be considered a hero by every person in this country.”

There are about 160 Arlington Ladies, each representing the Army, Navy or the Air Force at Arlington National Cemetery funerals. The Marine Corps does not have a group, but a spokesman quoted on the group’s Web site says there is a representative of the Marine commandant at each funeral.

About 25 funerals take place each day at Arlington, and most of the deceased are World War II veterans, said Kerry Sullivan, a spokeswoman for Arlington National Cemetery. The Library of Congress estimates that about 1,000 World War II veterans die each day.

The cemetery, which is reserved for military personnel and their spouses, has begun receiving remains of active combat soldiers from Iraq. So far, the cemetery laid to rest about 65 of those soldiers.

At the funeral on Friday, Lt. Cmdr. Robert Lebron, the Navy chaplain, presented a U.S. flag to Charles Geisendorf, Lt. Geisendorf’s nephew. Mrs. McKinley also stepped forward to offer her condolences.

Clasping each family member’s hand, she offered words of comfort and gratitude for Lt. Geisendorf’s service. She then presented Lt. Geisendorf’s nephew with an envelope containing several sympathy cards — one from Adm. Vern Clark, presented Lt. Geisendorf’s nephew with an envelope containing several sympathy cards — one from Adm. Vern Clark, chief of naval operations, one personally signed by Rear Adm. Jan C. Gaudio, the Navy commandant of the Naval District Washington, and a handwritten note from Mrs. McKinley.

“I like to let them know that I am here for them if they need anything at all,” she said, adding that she includes her contact information with each note.

Arlington Ladies was established by the Air Force in 1948. The concept was conceived by Gladys Rose Vandenberg, the wife of Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg, Air Force chief of staff. She often walked through Arlington Cemetery and noticed that airmen were being buried with no family present.

Mrs. Vandenberg began attending every funeral, determined that no Air Force member should be buried in a friendless atmosphere.

Soon, a committee was formed, and today the Air Force has about 40 Arlington Ladies. In 1973, the Army organized a women’s organization that now has about 68 members. In 1982, the Navy’s ladies were organized and now has about 50 members.

The women are volunteers who give up one day each month to attend as many as six funerals. They are wives or widows of soldiers of all ranks, on active duty or retired.

The Army requires Arlington Ladies applicants to be sponsored by an active member who must vouch for her “character, morality and suitability for performing the sensitive duties required.”

Many times, family members of the deceased are not aware that a lady will be at the funeral. But Mrs. McKinley said she always meets with the family in a receiving room before the services.

After meeting with Mrs. McKinley before his cousin’s funeral on Friday, Fred Geisendorf, 65, of Port Gamble, Wash., was touched by the attention that his family received from the group.

“What a service,” he said. “It shows a tremendous amount of dedication.”

The ladies groups share a similar mission: to make sure that no soldier will be buried alone in Arlington National Cemetery.

They are also there for the families.

If a deceased’s family lives out of town and is not able to see the headstone that is erected at their loved one’s grave site, then an Arlington Lady will take a photograph of the headstone — often at her own expense — and mail it to the family.

The women also fulfill requests from the loved ones left behind. Every year, Mrs. McKinley places a single red rose at the grave of one soldier, at the request of his widow. This month, the couple would have celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary.

Mrs. McKinley said she will send the widow 50 red roses, “because I am sure that is what her husband would have done for her.”

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