Arlington National Cemetery is a special place for Doreen Huylebroeck.
She brings her 5-year-old grandson there at least once a week, and he knows where his grandfather is buried. He goes right to the grave and kisses the headstone, she said.
“Every day is so meaningful,” she said. “I love walking around and seeing the history.”
Huylebroeck is part of that history. Five years ago, she joined the Arlington Ladies, an organization that makes certain no one is ever buried alone.
It was founded in 1948, when then Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force Hoyt Vandenberg and his wife, Gladys, were walking through the cemetery. The couple noticed a funeral being held, but the only people there were the chaplain and honor guard. The Vandenbergs thought that wasn’t right, and she started a tradition.
The women are at Arlington despite rain, snow and extreme heat, attending funerals as a way to give back to military heroes.
“The military person is a hero and he deserves it. It’s just a special way to honor him and be there,” Huylebroeck said. “It’s our way of saying thank you to him for his service.”
The Arlington Ladies is an umbrella group, with volunteers from the U.S. Army, U.S. Navy and Coast Guard. The Marine Corps have their own group, separate from the Arlington Ladies.
Huylebroeck joined two years after her own husband, Chief Petty Officer Edward Huylebroeck, was buried at Arlington. She said it took a few nudges from friends before she signed up.
“After my husband died, I cried and cried, but you get to the point where you say you really do want to give back,” she said.
Huylebroeck attends mostly Navy funerals, and is one of about 50 women who volunteer for the Navy. The Army, a much bigger service branch, has many more women to compensate for more funerals. All the women in the group have a direct connection to the military. Huylebroeck said most are military spouses, but some are also military daughters. The Navy women work half days: There are about six funerals a day for US Navy servicemembers at Arlington, so one person will cover the morning funerals and another will attend three more in the afternoon.
“I never thought I could be an Arlington Lady. I thought I would cry no matter what,” she said. “You just have that inner strength and you know you are there for support for the family.”
And Huylebroeck goes above and beyond to do that. The Navy women meet relatives in the family room before a service; other branches do not. Huylebroeck takes the time to get to know the family a bit. She reads an obituary beforehand, so she has talking points and a way to connect. If a family isn’t local, she gives them her contact information and offers to place flowers on the grave on a birthday or anniversary. She pays for the bouquet out of her own pocket and says she is nothing but a link between the family and the grave.
“It’s the least I can do. I would appreciate it if someone did it for me,” she said.
She’s attended close to 500 funerals, she said, and some are harder than others. She recently attended the funeral of Mark Mayo, a sailor from Maryland who was shot and killed protecting another sailor aboard USS Mahan at Naval Station Norfolk.
That funeral, she said, was particularly hard. So was attending the funerals of a 2-year-old and twin babies.
“This year isn’t really any more special than last year or next year,” she said of Arlington, which is marking its 150th anniversary. “It’s just always special.”