Soldiers from the Old Guard, the Army unit that mans the Tomb of the Unknowns and performs many of the funerals at Arlington National Cemetery, have been given a very different task this summer.
Instead of burying the dead, they are now trying to account for them.
Almost every night since June, they’ve fanned out across the cemetery’s 624 acres, section by section, taking photos of every single grave. The photos are then uploaded to a database where they are double-checked against paper records that have been scanned into the system.
The effort to ensure that everyone in the country’s preeminent military burial ground is buried in the right place was mandated by Congress after Army investigators last year found widespread problems at the 150-year-old cemetery: misidentified and misplaced remains, urns that had been unearthed and dumped in a dirt pile, dysfunctional management and millions of dollars wasted in botched contracts.
Since then, additional problems have continued to dog the cemetery, including the discovery of a mass grave that held eight sets of cremated remains. The FBI along with the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division is conducting a broad investigation into possible criminal activity.
Some members of Congress, along with some veterans organizations, have said that the cemetery, which attracts 4 million tourists a year, should be taken away from the Army and turned over to the Department of Veterans Affairs, which runs 131 national cemeteries nationwide.
But the Army does not want that to happen. On Tuesday, it invited members of the media to Arlington to watch how a special task force is working to account for the more than 320,000 people buried there.
It starts with the Old Guard soldiers, who snap pictures of the front and back of every tombstone using a specially outfitted iPhone that enables them to also record the section and plot number of the grave. With the phone, they can also record the number of decedents interred there and whether the headstone is chipped or the grass is overgrown. They also record the location of the grave using the phone’s global position system.
All of that information is then uploaded to a database and cross checked against paper records — grave cards and records of interment — that are being scanned in.
“Where there are holes, we’ll find them,” said Deborah Richert, a co-chair of the task force. “Where there are errors, we will fix them.”
Once the database is complete, it will be put online so visitors to the cemetery can look up their loved ones, officials said.
The task force so far cannot say how many problems the work has uncovered because not all of the records have been scanned. But they have found some discrepancies between the records that have been scanned so far and what is on the ground. One of the examples they showed the media was a case where the paper records said a person died in 2008, but the headstone read 2009. In another example — which Lt. Col. Jamie Wilmeth called “a very typical discrepancy, unfortunately” — a date of birth had been transposed from Aug. 13 from Aug. 31.
Those kinds of errors will be rectified by checking death certificates and military service records, Wilmeth said.
And then there is the possibility of more troubling findings: unmarked graves, empty plots, paperwork that is wrong or incomplete, people found to be buried in the wrong places.
So far, task force officials said they have not found any more cases of people buried in the wrong spots. But if they do, they said those incidents would be turned over to the cemetery’s leadership, which would then have to figure out what went wrong and how to fix it.