By Airman 1st Class Joshua R. M. Dewberry , 11th Wing Public Affairs Office
/ Published February 03, 2014
JOINT BASE ANDREWS, Md. -- Whether it is in the warmth of spring or the cold of winter, the mission of an Air Force chaplain, their assistants and the Arlington Ladies never fades. This is the purpose of the Arlington National Cemetery, Va.; to honor our nation's fallen heroes and provide spiritual care for their loved ones.
Arlington National Cemetery is a 624-acre stretch of land that was founded during the American Civil War with gravesites containing the remains of deceased service members, their families, military chaplains, nurses, confederate and union soldiers, former slaves, presidents and senators.
Its monuments include the Tomb of the Unknowns, also known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, USS Maine Mast Memorial and the Space Shuttle Challenger Memorial.
"We make sure we successfully honor our fallen veterans and serve their families here at Arlington," said Staff Sgt. Otis Williams, 11th Operations Group chaplain's assistant/Arlington National Cemetery NCO in charge of Air Force funerals. "This year marks the 150th anniversary of burying our nation's heroes at Arlington."
The first soldier to be buried at Arlington was Army Pvt. William Christman on May 13, 1864. Other notable burial sites include the gravesites of U.S. presidents William Howard Taft and John F. Kennedy. Additionally, Arlington has the second largest number of burials of any national cemetery in the United States with approximately 6,900 burials a year, just behind Calverton National Cemetery in Long Island, N.Y.
The large number of funerals that are coordinated are due to the efforts of the Air Force chaplain assistants Williams and Staff Sgt. Matthew Daniel, 11th Operations Group NCO in charge of Operations.
"My job consists of scheduling services, making sure the chaplain and Arlington Ladies get to the funeral on time, make sure they have the information they need and transportation to and from gravesites," said Williams. "I coordinate behind the scenes with the chaplains, Honor Guard and Band to ensure the funerals run smoothly."
With such a large number of gravesites added to the area annually, initiatives like the "Millennium Project" on Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall are underway to expand Arlington Cemetery in order to make room for more graves over time.
"Arlington will be active for several decades into the 2050s, allowing people to continue to be buried there before there is no more room," said Chaplain (Col.) Charles Cornelisse, 11th Operations Group Arlington Senior Air Force Chaplain. "Approximately 30 funerals a day are conducted at Arlington, adding to the more than 400,000 heroes and heroines already residing there."
Arlington Air Force chaplains such Cornelisse and Chaplain (Capt.) Travis Sears provide for the spiritual care of the families of the deceased.
"I provide pastoral care for the families of the fallen, allowing them to exercise their freedom of religious practice according to the Constitution," Cornelisse said. "I love working here. I tell people I don't have a job, I have the joy of serving at Arlington National Cemetery. I'm thrilled to be able to come to Arlington every day and serve my country."
The pride of ministering and being of service is mutually shared by the chaplains.
"For me it's a calling, it's a way for me to serve both God and country and to serve our country to ensure everyone's freedom of religion," Sears said. "One of the most moving experiences is when I present the flag to the families, sometimes you can get choked up. It's an honor to render that to the family."
The Chaplains admit that as much as they enjoy spiritually providing for the families, participating at multiple funerals weekly can cause "compassion fatigue."
"It can be difficult at times to be around funerals so often, but we have our fellow chaplains to talk to," Sears said. "I do about three to four funerals a day. So in my short seven months I've been here, I've done about 250 services so far."
A pillar of moral support and compassion is the Arlington Ladies organization. This group of volunteers consists of about 50 members attending an average of 70 funerals a month, according to Jean Anderegg, Chairwoman of the Arlington Ladies.
The group has been attending funerals since 1948 when Gladys Vandenberg, wife of the second Chief of Staff of the Air Force, Gen. Hoyt Vandenberg, began attending funerals of fallen Airmen. She soon recruited her friends to join her and formed the Arlington Committee of the Air Force Officer's Wives Club.
They have attended more than 26,000 funerals at Arlington.
"Even though we do multiple funerals a day, we focus on one at a time because service deserves its moment of significance and recognition," Cornelisse said. "I hear people say all the time that I seemed like I knew the person being buried, but that's because we do our homework on them and hope they get a sense of how much we appreciate them and their service."
Members of this Arlington family work together as religious support teams for the families of the deceased.
"I typically say at funerals this is a time we celebrate with tears, military honors and knowing we're at Arlington National Cemetery," Cornelisse siad. "There are tears because their loved one is no longer sitting with them, beside them in that chair, at the dinner table or couch at home. They're no longer physically here."
Cornelisse added that the grief of losing loved ones is a very real entity that he has the opportunity to minister to and that's about the gospel message of God's presence, eternal life, and the resurrection.
"Those promises of God, that your loved one has gone to be with him and that God is still with us," Cornelisse said. "It's about identifying with that family and honoring our nation's heroes."