Twice a month, Coast Guard All Hands will feature “ From the Homefront ,” a column for Coast Guard spouses by Coast Guard spouse Shelley Kimball. Shelley has been married to Capt. Joe Kimball, chief of the office of aviation forces at Coast Guard headquarters, for 16 years. She currently serves on the board of directors for the Military Family Advisory Network .
Written by Shelley Kimball
This small team of nine ensures that no member of our Coast Guard family is buried at Arlington National Cemetery alone.
We are the Coast Guard Arlington Ladies, and we carry on a tradition that began more than 40 years ago. For us, every day is a day to remember those who have served.
For Marla Viekman, chair of the Coast Guard Arlington Ladies, one of the most important parts of the experience is making sure that the family comes through the funeral as gently as possible, remembering that any one of us could be needing empathy in the throes of grief.
“It’s a special honor to be able to do this because I know I could be seated at that next-of-kin chair, and I would want somebody to soften the pain of that day and just to be supportive,” Viekman said. “You have the military ceremony, and that’s beautiful, but you need to be personal. You really need that personal touch. And that’s why it is so meaningful, too. Because we could all be there.”
The Arlington Ladies are a group of volunteer women (and sometimes men) who honor those laid to rest at Arlington Cemetery by serving at funerals in an official capacity. Our Coast Guard team helps lead families through the funerals of their loved ones from start to finish. We are the spouses of both active duty and retired members of the Coast Guard.
Our team serves at an average of about seven funerals a month. We distinguish ourselves from the Arlington Ladies of other military branches in that we also attend the funerals of spouses, not just those who were active duty members.
We work alongside the Ceremonial Honor Guard, highly trained, poised, Coast Guardsmen who provide the ceremonial honors for the deceased. I like to think of the Honor Guard as the formality and pageantry, and the Arlington Ladies are the heart.
Serving at a funeral as an Arlington Lady entails meeting with the bereaved family before the funeral begins where we offer our condolences and bring them a memorial booklet to remember the funeral day. After the Honor Guard completes their part of the funeral, we step in and speak to the next of kin, giving them condolences on behalf of the commandant of the Coast Guard and our own written sympathy cards. We also retrieve the shells from the three-volley gun salute and bring them to the family members at the end of the funeral.
The tradition began in the late 1940s by the Air Force chief of staff and his wife, who regularly attended funerals to make sure that everyone interred or inurned had a mourner to pay their respects. In 1973, the Army officially formed a group, followed by the Navy in 1985. The Marines do not have Arlington Ladies as they send an official representative to every funeral.
The Coast Guard Arlington Ladies’ history starts in the 1970s when spouses began unofficially serving at funerals. A group of Coast Guard spouses would serve at funerals, escorted by their husbands. That practice continued until 2002. By then, the process became more formal and comparable to the other services.
Sheila Barrett, a Coast Guard spouse, was instrumental in ensuring that the Coast Guard Arlington Ladies became an officially recognized group. She worked as a liaison with the Honor Guard at Coast Guard Headquarters to get escorts for the ladies who serve at funerals. She helped organize the process by which Arlington Ladies communicate about covering upcoming funerals with headquarters. She and her team of Arlington Ladies, many of whom still serve, developed a memorial booklet that bereaved family members still receive at funerals.
Due to her efforts, in 2004, the Coast Guard Arlington Ladies were an officially accepted presence at Arlington National Cemetery and moved into office space there. In 2006, the Coast Guard recognized by the Arlington Ladies program with a headquarters instruction, ensuring the enduring connection between the Arlington Ladies, the Honor Guard, and Arlington National Cemetery.
In the eight years since she took over, Viekman has further polished and honed the program, including streamlining the process by which we train and serve at funerals, developing our own official insignia that we wear to funerals, and ensuring that the Coast Guard was included in a PBS documentary about all of the Arlington Ladies from all of the branches. For her efforts, she was recently awarded the Distinguished Public Service Award, the highest recognition of public service the commandant can bestow.
In fact, she was not even sure she would be able to do it when she first started. She said she never really considered it until another Arlington Lady told her to try.
“Sometimes you don’t see yourself doing things, and then others point you into a direction,” she said.
Today, we shadow at funerals for months before serving alone. But when Viekman started, they shadowed once or twice, and then they were on their own.
“I was shaking, I was so nervous,” she said. “I guess it was okay.”
Why we do it
Our reasons for serving our Coast Guard family in this capacity vary.
“It takes a special personality to be an Arlington Lady,” Viekman said. “You need to have a desire within yourself to do it.”
For me, it was a need to be there for families from beginning to end. I have brought so many meals to celebrate the arrivals of babies, and assisted families with support at every step along the Coast Guard path, but I also wanted to be there at the end of life.
I have been doing this for two years, and I come home every time and tell my family about the person who died. I want all of them stored in our memories. It is truly one of the greatest honors of my life to stand by families and help, in some small way, to lead them through a time of sorrow.
However, I cry at everything. It’s a problem. If I’m happy for you, I’m crying. If you are hurt or upset, I’m crying. Before I started, I was not sure I could stand up at funerals without falling apart.
I found that I am so engrossed in making sure our families are getting through what is likely one of the most difficult moments of their lives that I don’t cry. But the moment it gets really quiet, and the strains of Taps envelops us, a tear escapes. Always.
We all work pretty hard to maintain our composure.
Janice Lytle, who has been an Arlington Lady for about three years, said her greatest worry was being able to get through the funeral without crying. She read an article in the newspaper about the group, and she loved the idea of serving veterans and their families in this way, but she wasn’t confident she could compartmentalize her feelings. She said that hearing about the lives the service members and their families have led has helped, as does the gratitude from the families who often have never even heard of Arlington Ladies.
“I find the families are so appreciative of it,” Lytle said. “They are so amazed. It’s a great way to give back and a great way to honor our vets and the service they have given.”
Maggi Paar has been an Arlington Lady since 2009, and like most of us, she wasn’t sure she would make it through. She hadn’t attended many funerals to that point, so she didn’t quite know how she would respond.
“I wasn’t sure if I could,” she said. “The idea of being able to go and do this. I wasn’t sure it wouldn’t be too emotional to me.”
She was there helping Barrett and Viekman pull together a handbook for Arlington Ladies to use to train. That was the easy stuff f or her – the clerical work. But working with the families at such an emotional time?
“When I would go, Taps would tear me up every time,” Paar said. “And I thought, ‘How am I going to do this?’ Just being around the cemetery, and being around the families, it all unfolded for me. It was one step at a time.”
The most meaningful parts for her now are the things that worried her – helping families who are struggling. Many of the families don’t remember much about their loved one’s service or they haven’t been around the military, and Paar sees that as a way to connect. She can be the one who is also a family member to a service member, and she can help them understand the significance of an Arlington funeral, even in their grief.
“They are not going to remember me, they are hardly going to remember anything about that day,” Paar said. ”But in the moment, it means a lot to me to be the person that’s there, and being supportive, and part of the ceremony. Being the connection between the military and the families.”
Finishing out the corps of four Arlington Ladies in 2009 was Cathie Jamieson, who is also still serving. In all of these funerals (she has done 47 – she counts them), she has retained an appreciation for being a part of such an important moment.
“I often feel that I am the grateful party – to be included in the families’ most private and tender moments and to be able to render honors to members of our Coast Guard family,” she said.
It is more than a cemetery or a place to volunteer.
“Over the years, my husband and I have become friends with some of the Honor Guard folks,” she said. “In discussions with them, it seems that we have similar experiences. Preparation is detail oriented, but once you drive through the gates, the outside world seems to fade away and you can focus, without distraction, on the task at hand. Being at Arlington National Cemetery can be a peaceful, Zen-like experience even in freezing cold, or blistering heat, or torrential rain or falling snow.”
The three years that Angie Kelly has been an Arlington Lady have been a way for her to support the commitment Coast Guard families make to the service.
“For me, it means to be available and to be there for men and women who have dedicated their lives of service to the Coast Guard, whether it is for a couple of years or a career,” she said. “It is a way for families to have the support of the Coast Guard present while their loved one is being laid to rest.”
From the moment she greets a family on the arrival to the cemetery through the end of the funeral when she relays her condolences, Kelly said it is a chance to remind families of our gratitude.
“Hopefully at this time the families have a sense of closure and they know the Coast Guard is thankful for their loved one’s years of service,” she said.
Each funeral is a chance to learn about our families, to stand by in support.
“To be an Arlington Lady is an honor,” Kelly said. “To be able to embrace Coast Guard families is an honor. And to know you were able to take a few hours out of your day to be with military families is an honor. We are fortunate that we can be there for officers, enlisted, dependents and even SPARS. It is amazing to listen to what each individual has accomplished in their lives and all of them were able to give a bit of their life to the military. I am thankful that I have been allowed this opportunity and it continues to be rewarding with each funeral I am able to attend.”
Kelley Miller, who has been an Arlington Lady for four years, said serving at Arlington is one of the most important parts of her life.
“I say this and mean it with all my heart, next to my faith, family and clients as an attorney, the thing I value most is my ability to serve as an Arlington Lady,” she said. “It is absolutely the thing I am most proud of in more than two decades of being a U.S. Coast Guard spouse.”
For Amy Holmes, the newest Arlington Lady on the team, joining our ranks was a way not only to support those who have served and scarified in the Coast Guard, but also to make a true connection to families.
“Our Coast Guard experience has taken us all over the country, with frequent moves, and we’ve left friends and family behind,” Holmes said. “That’s where the Coast Guard family has been an important connection, becoming our family and dearest friends. It’s an honor and a gift to be that connection and supportive presence to the family members in our visits before the funeral, during the ceremony, and at the gravesite.”
Knowing that we are not only standing in to give condolences on behalf of the commandant and his wife, but also in the stead of active duty members and all of the Coast Guard family, is especially moving and meaningful, she said.
“That is truly great when you think about how many people and who we are representing,” Holmes said. “I know it’s such a comfort to the families because they’ve told me so, to recognize the life and contribution to the service and to our country.”
The views expressed herein are those of the author and are not to be construed as official or reflecting the views of the Commandant or of the U.S. Coast Guard.