USA — Soldiers Use Smartphones to Register Arlington Headstones

WASHINGTON, Aug. 31, 2011 — Since ear­ly June, about 100 sol­diers and vol­un­teer stu­dents have spent their nights silent­ly walk­ing between the seem­ing­ly end­less rows of mar­ble at Arling­ton Nation­al Ceme­tery here, stop­ping to crouch and clear the grass from the base of each head­stone.

Com­pa­ny D sol­diers of the 3rd U.S. Infantry, known as “The Old Guard,” pho­to­graph head­stones with smart­phones at Arling­ton Nation­al Ceme­tery, Aug. 30, 2011, to help rec­on­cile bur­ial records.
U.S. Army pho­to by J.D. Leipold
Click to enlarge

Then they step back, crouch again and snap pho­tos with smart­phones of the front and back of each head­stone — 219,619 of them includ­ing the 726 new buri­als since the project began. They’ve also pho­tographed 43,096 colum­bar­i­um wall nich­es where urns filled with cre­mat­ed remains rest. Next they enter the sec­tion and grave num­bers, the GPS lat­i­tude and lon­gi­tude, how many are interred under one grave and oth­er infor­ma­tion. Once they dou­ble-check the infor­ma­tion, they email it in a pack­age to a task force of spe­cial­ists who begin the process of match­ing head­stone infor­ma­tion with dig­i­tized records that are then com­pared for accuracy. 

The pho­to doc­u­men­ta­tion is just the first step in the cemetery’s efforts to cor­rect issues on grave iden­ti­fi­ca­tion, said ceme­tery offi­cials. The prob­lems had come to light more than a year ago when it was dis­cov­ered that the ceme­tery was oper­at­ing on an anti­quat­ed account­abil­i­ty sys­tem that often meant interred remains were not where they were sup­posed to be. 

As the sol­diers have been cap­tur­ing images of the head­stones, the ceme­tery also is dig­i­tal­ly map­ping the ceme­tery through aer­i­al pho­tog­ra­phy, which will add an addi­tion­al lay­er of account­abil­i­ty and even­tu­al­ly will pro­vide the added ben­e­fit of enabling the pub­lic to locate and view the gravesites of loved ones over the Internet. 

Much of the doc­u­men­ta­tion work on the ground has been accom­plished by Com­pa­ny D sol­diers of the 3rd U.S. Infantry, known as “The Old Guard,” between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.

Army Capt. Nate Peter­son, Com­pa­ny D com­man­der, said the rea­sons for work­ing late night into ear­ly morn­ing were part­ly to avoid the 100-degree-plus tem­per­a­tures and humid­i­ty and because his sol­diers could more apt­ly con­trol the light­ing in the evening. He not­ed his team was off the grounds by the time the first funer­al was under way. An aver­age of 27 funer­als takes place at the ceme­tery daily. 

On this day, the sol­diers were at the start of 15,000 reshoots. Some­times the angle of the orig­i­nal pho­to sub­mit­ted was key-stoned or blur­ry, or the mar­ble was too reflec­tive of the flash or the email did­n’t make it to the data col­lec­tion cen­ter. Bot­tom line — if the pho­tos aren’t per­fect, they’re pho­tographed again, Peter­son said, adding that his team would get cre­ative if just for the per­fect angle. 

“Pres­i­dent Taft’s mark­er is real­ly tall and they want­ed to make sure they got a nice head-on shot, so one of the guys put anoth­er guy on his shoul­ders, backed up and took the pic­ture,” he said. 

Army Spc. Matthew Caru­so, who has been with the Old Guard for about two years, said tak­ing the pho­tos has been an honor. 

“It’s a good feel­ing know­ing that you’re doing some­thing for the fam­i­lies of the fall­en and mak­ing sure in this par­tic­u­lar case that we’re help­ing to fix any dis­crep­an­cies in the ceme­tery,” he said. 

Caru­so just recent­ly found out from his grand­moth­er that his grand­fa­ther was in the columbarium. 

“It was per­son­al­ly inter­est­ing to me because I have a fall­en grand­fa­ther there that I nev­er heard about until recent­ly,” Caru­so said. “My grand­moth­er told me he was buried here, a World War II vet­er­an, so I did some research and found out where he was.” 

Yes­ter­day, sol­diers were work­ing in sec­tion 33, one of the old­est areas that con­tain the graves of ser­vice mem­bers who lived from the late 1800s into the ear­ly 1900s. Most were vet­er­ans of the Span­ish-Amer­i­can War. 

For Army Pfc. Chris Bodell, work­ing through the dark nights has giv­en him pause to think about the peo­ple reflect­ed by the headstones. 

“It’s kind of a weird feel­ing look­ing at all of those who have come before me, won­der­ing what they did in their careers,” he said. “Look­ing at the graves, tak­ing pic­tures to help doc­u­ment the peo­ple who fought in the Civ­il War and those who have died in the cur­rent con­flicts — this is all so much big­ger than just myself.” 

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs) 

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