JOINT BASE ANACOSTIA-BOLLING, Washington D.C. –
"Looking across this field, we see the scale of heroism and sacrifice,” said President George H. W. Bush at Arlington National Cemetery Memorial Day 2005. “All who are buried here understood their duty. All stood to protect America. And all carried with them memories of a family that they hoped to keep safe by their sacrifice."
More than 400,000 active-duty service members, veterans and their families have been laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery since it officially became a national cemetery June 15, 1864, by order of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. People from every American conflict have been buried at the 639-acre cemetery.
The United States Air Force Chaplaincy under the 11th Operations Group at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling serves at Arlington National Cemetery, laying to rest Air Force members and their family being buried there.
The Air Force chaplaincy at Arlington consists of three active-duty chaplains and two enlisted religious affairs Airmen. Additionally, they have three Reserve individual mobilization augmentees to support the mission.
This is a special duty assignment, and each member of the team is handpicked for the two- to three-year assignment. The Air Force chaplains represent Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish faiths.
For all of them, it is a calling.
“For the past decade every opportunity was preparing me this assignment," said U.S. Air Force Chaplain (Capt.) Ben Skelton, United States Air Force Chapel Operations-Arlington National Cemetery chaplain. “I could not imagine any other opportunity more rewarding or fulfilling than being here at Arlington National Cemetery, honoring our nation’s heroes.”
The 11th OG chaplains are not the only chaplains at Arlington National Cemetery. There are also the United States Navy Chaplaincy, which serves the Sailors, Marines, Coast Guardsman, and the United States Army Chaplaincy to serve Soldiers.
The chaplaincy mission is to provide support for the families and carry out funeral services based on the individuals’ religious beliefs.
Every funeral, regardless of location, is unique to the individual and family. But for the services at Arlington National Cemetery, there are especially complex details to which the chaplains must adhere. The Air Force chaplains at Arlington must learn specific movements and choreography for each service. There are different complexities of service as well, especially if there is a flyover. Those take time to learn; only a handful of chaplains have that same experience. It is impossible to slide a chaplain into the Arlington National Cemetery because these ceremonies have a particular set of requirements that have to be taught and learned.
Their specific movements are scripted and meticulous, and their connections with the families are poignant and essential in providing for the needs of those in mourning.
"We are present with families during the most vulnerable moments in their lives," said U.S. Air Force Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Rick Beyea, United States Air Force Chapel Operations-Arlington National Cemetery senior chaplain. "They are grieving a loss of a loved one. Not only are we doing a service, but we are also conducting grief counseling as they remember their loss."
In addition to comforting families at Arlington National Cemetery, the Air Force chaplains also coordinate funeral logistics, are the initial contact with next of kin, prepare a personalized message to honor the decedent, coordinate with the United States Air Force Honor Guard and Band in performance of the funeral, and provide a special condolence letter.
The Air Force chaplains conduct over 1,000 military and dependent funeral services annually at Arlington.
While many of the ceremonial traditions at Arlington have remained unchanged over the last 10 years, one thing that has drastically changed is the operations tempo of daily services. As the World War II, Korean War and Vietnam Conflict generation’s age, the 11th OG chaplains have increased from six to 12 services a day. This influx of services can also be attributed to many people choosing to delay or reschedule funerals because of the health and age of those who would be traveling to witness the services during COVID times.
During the height of the pandemic, contract tracing helped monitor and track COVID-19 cases with which the chaplaincy staff may have come in contact, and the team kept a staggered schedule so not everyone was in the office every day at the same time.
"Chaplains at Arlington National Cemetery didn't have the luxury to social distance or telework from people during COVID-19," said U.S. Air Force Chaplain (Maj.) Steven Rein, United States Air Force Chapel Operations-Arlington National Cemetery chaplain.
The chaplains and staff continued honoring the deceased and supporting the friends and families through the pandemic to ensure services were done right and families and the veterans were given proper attention and respect, he said.
Overall, COVID-19 presented a significant challenge when trying to keep funeral services from being delayed.
No matter how hectic their schedules become, they maintain focus on the overall mission of honoring the lives of people who served their country and making that special connection with each service member and family member being laid to rest.
"One thing I do is I try to speak to the Honor Guard and the pallbearers a little bit about the individual they are about to be carrying." Skelton stated, "I want them to know a little bit about the person's soul of the person in that casket."
Despite the challenges of COVID-19 and an increase in daily services, the Air Force chaplains at Arlington National Cemetery are committed to their mission of honoring service members, veterans and their families for their service and sacrifice.