By Christian Davenport
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 7, 2010; B03
A consortium of high-tech companies from Northern Virginia is stepping in to help Arlington National Cemetery digitize its paper burial records, Sen. Mark Warner announced Friday.
The companies, all members of the Northern Virginia Technology Council, will meet with cemetery officials next week to create an assessment of the type of technology needed to create an automated system, a process that Warner said "should not be that big of a challenge."
Warner (D-Va.) reached out to the tech council after the Army's inspector general released a report in June that found that poor record-keeping and mismanagement led to the mislabeling of dozens of graves. As a result, the cemetery's top two managers were forced to resign.
Warner, a former businessman who co-founded cellphone company Nextel (now Sprint Nextel), called the scandal a "disgrace" and was incredulous that the cemetery was still using an antiquated paper system. But he said that creating a digital system to handle the more than 330,000 burial records would be a relatively easy task.
Fifteen companies, including giants such as IBM, CACI, Booz Allen Hamilton and Microsoft, will help the cemetery, free of charge, to figure out what sort of system it needs, said Bobbie Kilberg, president of the tech council. "We really need to provide them with the road map to solve the problem, which the private sector can do," she said.
Investigators found that the cemetery has spent millions of dollars on contracts to digitize its records, but it relies on paper burial records.
"We are one rainstorm or fire or potentially one spilled coffee cup away from destroying these records," Warner said.
Once a solution is identified, it's up to the Army to decide how to proceed. The Army has given the cemetery authority to accept gifts of up to $10,000, said Gary Tallman, an Army spokesman. For gifts, there is a complicated review process, which includes the secretary of the Army.
Kilberg said the companies would look at adapting the system used by the Department of Veterans Affairs at its cemeteries. Senate investigators, probing about $8 million spent on automating Arlington Cemetery's system, said that officials from Veterans Affairs thought their technology could be used at Arlington, but cemetery officials declined to use it, saying they needed to build their own system from scratch.
"It would be our responsibility to see what is already out there and available," Kilberg said. "There is no need to reinvent the wheel."