The Department of Veterans Affairs has expanded its Veterans Legacy Memorial project to include former service members interred at 27 cemeteries managed by the Air Force, Navy and Army, including Arlington National Cemetery.
Ahead of Memorial Day, VA officials said the expansion adds more than 300,000 veterans to the online memorial, which now contains landing pages for roughly 4.8 million veterans.
Each memorial page includes a veteran's dates of birth and death, dates or eras of military service, grave location and photo of grave, as available. The site is fully interactive, allowing family members, friends and colleagues to share photos, documents and memories.
Since the site went fully interactive on Memorial Day weekend in 2021, more than 58,000 items have been uploaded to veterans' pages, according to James LaPaglia, digital services officer for the National Cemetery Administration.
And they can post messages, much like a social media page. Linda Monroe, Robert's wife, visits the page often and leaves messages to him across the ether, even as she frequently visits his graveside at Riverside National Cemetery in California.
"Good morning," she wrote to her husband in April. "Brought you some roses. It's raining again but off and on after a week of sunshine."
"Instead of what you see at a cemetery, with someone standing at a headstone talking to their late husband or late son, late daughter or spouse, this is happening virtually," LaPaglia said during a press conference Wednesday in Washington, D.C. "We see people grieve, we see people telling funny stories. We see just the gamut of emotion."
The Veterans Legacy Memorial launched in 2019, initially as a static site that provided basic details on 3.7 million veterans buried in the VA's 155 national cemeteries. The project was expanded in 2021 to include VA-supported state, tribal and territorial veterans cemeteries, and was broadened again in 2022 to include two National Park Service cemeteries.
The addition this year of four Air Force, five Navy and 18 Army-run cemeteries includes the most requested location, Arlington National Cemetery -- "something our users have been asking for from the beginning," LaPaglia said.
"This is an exciting expansion, for the first time going outside the VA to a different database from a different department," LaPaglia said.
This, however, is where the Veterans Legacy Memorial is dependent on the reliability of other organizations' databases, which aren't necessarily 100% accurate. For example, of this reporter's eight close relatives buried at Arlington National Cemetery and the U.S. Naval Academy -- both new additions to the memorial site -- just two have Veterans Legacy Memorial pages, or at least the others aren't searchable.
LaPaglia said this "happens periodically," and VLM has a team of people that chases down issues including missing records, inaccuracies, misspellings or missed military decorations.
"I think last year we took in about 300 of those issues and worked with cemeteries to get those corrected or records added," LaPaglia said. "The time it takes to negotiate that and to find documentation to support what people claim might be erroneous or to fix databases can happen the same day [or] it can take several days or weeks to figure it out."
For those who need assistance finding their veteran or changing or adding a record, the "Customer Support" link on the VLM website provides a phone number, as well as a link to an email address to request help.
The customer support team works 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Central time Monday through Friday, but LaPaglia said a team will be on duty all three days over Memorial Day weekend.
"That is something we deal with and anticipate more," LaPaglia said.
He said that, in addition to ensuring that all veterans interred at national and Defense Department cemeteries are represented on the site, the VA's ultimate goal is to have a page for every veteran regardless of burial site.
This fall, it plans to tap into the VA database of markers ordered for placement on veteran graves in private cemeteries -- another 5 million records. The VA is also in talks with the American Battle Monuments Commission, which manages 26 American military cemeteries overseas.
After that, there are challenges such as accounting for veterans whose remains "might be on a mantelpiece somewhere, scattered somewhere or buried at sea."
"We have more development work to do. We're excited about it," LaPaglia said.
The Veterans Legacy Memorial website can be found here. LaPaglia urged Americans this Memorial Day to go to a veteran's page to honor them.
"After the barbecues and kayaking, take some time to go to [the Veterans Legacy Memorial]. Find your veterans. Show their memories," he said.
– Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Military.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.