Two years after the country’s most famous national cemetery was slammed as a national disgrace over bad record-keeping, misidentified remains and headstones placed at empty graves, Arlington National Cemetery has digitized all its burial records and made them available to the public via a smartphone app.
Cemetery visitors may now find a grave by including information about a buried individual or simply clicking a location on the screen map. A few more clicks will display photos of the front and back of headstones and monuments, plot out a path to the destination grave and indicate how long it will take to walk to it.
“The problems of the past are now resolved. We’re moving forward,” Arlington spokeswoman Jennifer Lynch said on Monday.
Several Arlington officials attended a press conference Monday at the Association of the U.S. Army annual conference in Washington to announce the new app.
Kathryn Condon, executive director for the Army National Cemeteries Program, held up a standard index card, and noted that just two years ago it was the method used to track burials at the cemetery. Next to her Arlington Superintendent Patrick Hallinan held up an oversized and bulky ledger – one of several map books officials used to assign grave sites and track burials.
But that was then.
“They [the cards and map books] are all being archived,” Condon said. “We no longer have paper records at Arlington National Cemetery.”
Instead, officials assign burial sites in much the same way individuals may now select a seat on a plane when booking a flight, according to Maj. Nicholas R. Miller, chief information officer at Arlington. Miller said that once the data is included it is readily visible to everyone with cemetery responsibility, including maintenance. That means each time someone accesses the map they will see, in real time, where burial spots have been assigned, as well as where burials or memorial events are to take place that day, he said.
The maps viewable to visitors, including those visiting online only, will show current and future cemetery events and note select points of interest, he said. These points include some of the more famous burial sites, monuments, buildings and memorials, including memorial trees donated by military and veterans’ organizations.
“Nothing will replace the experience of walking in the cemetery, but if you’re not afforded that opportunity, technology can enhance that [online] visit,” Miller said. “And if you are in the cemetery, getting gravesite directions can be enhanced by technology.”
There is also a feature on the website to provide feedback. Viewers may comment on the site and even on specific burial records if they have additional information, Condon said. The situation at Arlington is much different today than in 2010, when servicemembers, veterans, survivors of fallen troops and Congress were rocked by revelations of unmarked graves, mis-buried remains and more.
The Army and the FBI launched investigations into wrongdoing and the Army replaced leadership at the cemetery. For a time there was discussion of turning the cemetery over to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Starting in June 2011 the Arlington National Cemetery Gravesite Accountability Task Force began poring over 150 years of records to provide an accurate record of burials. As part of their work Soldiers of the Old Guard photographed and uploaded images of Arlington headstone -- front and back -- onto the database now available to the public. At the same time a separate team of soldiers and Defense Department civilians in Rosslyn began cross-checking the cemetery’s information with VA records.
Kate Kelley, director of accountability at Arlington, said the data has been painstakingly reviewed for accuracy. The database is nearly complete, with 99.4 percent of the cemetery’s 260,000 graves or other burial sites verified.
“This is a great day for veterans and our families," Condon said.