This is the Second of a series of occasional columns about women in Washington)
"Ashes to ashes," intoned Chaplain Ted Hepner. "Dust to dust." The old colonel's five mourners wept as the bugler played Taps. The honor guard folded the American flag that had covered the coffin and handed it to Hepner, who handed it to the colonel's daughter. All the while, a cold wind whipped through Arlington National Cemetery.
If this had been most military funerals, or most Arlington funerals, that would have been that. But this was the moment for Margaret Mensch of Fairfax to step forward.
She offered the colonel's daughter two notes. One was a personal note of sympathy she had written by hand earlier that morning. The other was a condolence card from the U.S. Army chief of staff, whom Mensch officially represented.
As two platoons of soldiers stood silent watch, Mensch told the colonel's daughter to contact her if there was anything she could do. The daughter thanked her, and Mensch walked slowly away on the arm of her military escort, Pfc. Bruce Klinger of Sherrills Ford, N.C.
That scene repeats itself at more than 1,000 funerals each year, courtesy of an unsung, unpaid, largely unnoticed group of 59 women called the Army Arlington Ladies.
Like Margaret Mensch, most are the wives of retired Army officers who live in the Washington area. Like her, they have a million things they'd rather be doing than attending the funeral of someone they've probably never met. But every day of the year, at every Army funeral at Arlington, a member of AAL steps up to the next of kin immediately after the chaplain hands over the folded flag.
"It's very simple," Margaret Mensch said. "It's the ultimate in doing something for somebody else."
The AAL was organized in 1972 at the request of Gen. Creighton Abrams, who was then the Army's chief of staff. Although the other services occasionally provide volunteers to attend Arlington funerals, only Army funerals have the benefit of an AAL representative every time.
The whirring motor behind AAL is Nancy Schado, a red-haired grandmother from Arlington who has chaired the group since its founding.
Schado's adoration for All Things Army is a matter of longstanding record. She is probably best known as the woman who helped Fort Myer's Old Guard tend -- and later commemorate -- Black Jack, the riderless horse who became nationally famous after his poignant appearance in the funeral procession of President John F. Kennedy. But Schado calls AAL "every bit as important.
"Some people just don't feel they could go to the cemetery every day. But I think Army wives are used to sacrificing. We love our country. This is the least we can do. And it's so rewarding to get thank-you cards back from the families. We often do."
Or as Margaret Mensch remarked, "It never fails to get to you. The beauty, the pageantry. I feel I'm part of something that really means something."