Arlington on its way to single burial database

A year after a scandal upended the leadership at Arlington National Cemetery, the Army is making swift progress toward creating a single database of all those i...

By Jared Serbu
Federal News Radio

From a hodgepodge of paper records, digital databases and scanned images, the Army is working to create the first authoritative data source of who’s buried where in Arlington National Cemetery. Among the new features of the database will be a digital photograph of every gravesite.

Today, the Arlington National Cemetery doesn’t have a single database that holds the records of the more than 300,000 people interred at the site. Some of the records are on paper index cards, some are digitized and some are on scanned images the cemetery started creating in a previous effort that it aborted in 2005.

The record-keeping issues were among the problems the Army Inspector General’s office identified last year when it looked into the causes of misidentified grave sites and improperly unearthed cremated remains.

A project now underway at Arlington is intended to get all of its records in one place and to make sure they’re accurate. The legwork starts with the Delta Company of the Army’s 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, also known as The Old Guard. More than 50 soldiers are walking Arlington’s grounds, capturing digital photos of every headstone and every cremated remains marker on the property.

Building the database

Soldiers are using an iPhone app the Army modified specifically for the task. They generally work at night, because the photos tend to turn out more clearly and so that soldiers can be sure not to disrupt funerals.

“This is a huge honor,” said Capt. Nate Peterson, Delta Company’s commander. “Most of us have served overseas at one time or another, and we’ve lost buddies. To come out here and show them respect by documenting these headstones and making sure our records are straight, it’s a huge honor.”

Soldiers have been canvassing the cemetery since early June. Their smartphones capture the front and back of each headstone, its GPS coordinates to an accuracy of within 10-to-20 meters, and its individual grave marker number.

From there, each gravestone photo, front and back, gets emailed from the iPhone to the Army data center in Fairfield, Calif., where it’s added to a new database, which the Army is referring to as “The Research Tool.”

The gravestone record then is reviewed by up to three different tiers of analysts who use a custom-made Web application. On their screens, they see the data the Old Guard has submitted, combined with information Arlington has culled from its various data sources about a particular gravesite, including paper records, existing digital databases and previously scanned documents.

Lt. Col. Jamie Wilmeth, who leads 50 analysts working on the cemetery’s old and new burial records, said data such as year of birth, year of death, rank and name spelling usually are consistent across those various documents.

“When I first came on this job, my first question was what’s the baseline database were using here? The answer is, you’re creating it. There is no baseline database. Once we get them all to match, we will finally have a database,” he said.

All the cemetery’s burial records prior to 1999 are on paper cards. A contractor is digitally scanning those cards, and the information they contain is being manually entered into the research tool where it joins other types of data that may or may not exist about a particular person buried at Arlington.

Three tiers

Analysts in the first of the three tiers simply sniff out whether there’s a discrepancy between varying records about a servicemember buried at Arlington.

A tier-two analyst then gets the job of researching records to find out which data point is correct if Private Smith’s burial card says he died in 1998, but his gravestone says he died in 1999.

That sometimes involves going through records Arlington already has, such as military discharge paperwork, but sometimes analysts need to dig deeper into the records of DoD human resources organizations or state vital statistics databases. “If there’s a question beyond that where we simply can’t find an answer, we elevate it to tier three,” he said. “That’s where the leadership comes in. We have to take it to them and say, ‘Here’s where the preponderance of the evidence is.’ Then it becomes a policy decision.”

Wilmeth said no cases quite that vexing have come up yet, but his analysts are only beginning the tier-two phase. Arlington officials say they expect to have completed a tier one review of all 259,654 headstones and urn markers by the end of October. Analysts are about halfway through that phase of the project.

Once the data’s assembled, validated and cleaned up, the Army intends to make the database public. Family members will be able to access the entire burial record of their loved one, including the photo and location of the gravesite, from their home computers.

“I think it makes a huge difference for families to know their loved one’s location is being recorded diligently,” said Ami Neiberger-Miller , a spokeswoman for the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, a support organization for the families of fallen servicemembers.

Moving in the right direction

“Families want to know about these changes. We’ve even talked to Arlington about holding an open house in the fall, where perhaps they’ll do some demonstrations of the technology that families can see,” said Neiberger-Miller, whose brother Christopher was killed in Iraq in 2007 and is buried in Arlington’s section 60.

She said Arlington’s new leadership appears to be moving the cemetery’s management in the right direction.

In terms of the broader scandal around misidentified gravesites at Arlington, she said families’ reactions have been all over the map. But even if the scandal planted the seed in their minds that their loved ones’ burial records may have been inaccurate, most don’t spend much time thinking about it these days, she said.

“To me, the honor that rests at Arlington does not come from the people who manage it,” she said. “It comes from the people who are interred there. That’s what we should look at, and that’s what I look at as someone who’s had to look at this for myself. Our loved ones died, and they died serving their country. For a lot of families, the scandal side of this is almost off the radar. We’re trying to move forward, and so much of our energy gets consumed by trying to support somebody, who just came along who just lost someone in the military.”


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