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Chaplains provide support and comfort for families

Col. Charles Cornelisse provides words of comfort to the family of retired Air Force Maj. Gen. John Alison. (U.S. Air Force Photo/ Tech. Sgt. Raymond Mills)

Col. Charles Cornelisse provides words of comfort to the family of retired Air Force Maj. Gen. John Alison. (U.S. Air Force Photo/ Tech. Sgt. Raymond Mills)

Arlington, Va. -- From the first phone call to a grieving family to get to know their lost loved one, to the carefully chosen words spoken at a graveside service, the chaplains at Arlington National Cemetery are tasked with some of the most difficult duties at the cemetery.

Led by Senior Chaplains from the Air Force, Col. Charles Cornelisse; Army, Lt. Col. Thomas Helms; and Navy, Lt. Johnathan Bush; the chaplains along with their chaplain assistants team up to ensure they not only meet the religious wishes of those laid to rest, but also provide support and comfort to the families and loved ones they have left behind, providing all they can during their time of mourning.

Cornelisse is quick to note that he doesn't 'work' at Arlington, he 'serves'. As he points to a poster on the wall in his office with the word 'honor' written on it, he says it's important for chaplains to have a positive impact on families and to take special care when children are involved.

"Any service with children is very important because you want to give them a memory to hold on to, to try and help them understand what's going on," he said.

"Taking care of families" is the common thread for all the chaplains, each of them noting that serving the needs of each particular family is a vital aspect of what they do each and every day.

"Each service is different. A young grieving widow will likely need a different sort of counsel than a grieving parent. It's important for chaplains to meet their specific needs," said Helms.

The chaplains at Arlington, who report to their respective Military District of Washington Commands, conduct about 25-30 funerals a day, keeping their offices in the southwest corner of the Administration Building's lower level busy with activity. They conduct Protestant, Roman Catholic and Jewish funeral services, using active duty, Reserve, Guard and contract clergy. Families also have the option to bring their own clergy and the chaplains provide support to them as well.

"The volume of funerals was very eye opening," said Bush, speaking about when he first came to Arlington, "and the time restraints on services that the volume creates."

Bush noted that Protestant services in the chapel are limited to 20 minutes and Roman Catholic services are limited 30 minutes, while graveside committals for the chaplain are five to seven minutes. These time restraints allow Arlington to maintain its schedule while providing dignified burials and military honors for families and their loved ones. In each case, Bush expressed the importance of conducting the funerals in a meaningful and personal manner, as if you knew the person being laid to rest.

Each of the chaplains at Arlington has plenty of stories to share, moments they will never forget. But an underlying sentiment for each of them is the pride they feel to serve their fellow veterans and their families at Arlington's hallowed grounds.

"Arlington is a very sacred place and I'm grateful to serve here. While these services are a solemn occasion, I try to keep it a joyful remembrance of life," said Helms.