Even in death – maybe especially in death – the Army wants to know its soldiers and their loved ones are in formation and properly accounted for.
In response to the discovery in 2008 of widespread management problems at Arlington National Cemetery, the military has launched an effort at cemeteries across all its installations to bring record-keeping into the 21st century. This week, a team arrived at Fort Bragg to photograph every grave in the Main Post Cemetery, enter the photos into a database with the GIS coordinates of each stone, and cross-reference those with paper records that date back to the first burials in 1918.
A year from now, the Army hopes its work will be available to the public through an app like the one Arlington National has developed called ANC Explorer, which allows the public to locate grave sites, view pictures of the fronts and backs of headstones or monuments and get directions to the sites.
Families move from post to post, leave the military and relocate around the country, so they may not be able to visit the grave of a soldier, veteran or dependent laid to rest in what was once a peach orchard on a far edge of the field artillery training camp that became Fort Bragg, said Peter Kendrick, a retired soldier who is overseeing the work at Bragg and other Army posts.
But they want to know that grave is well cared for, and while it’s not the same as passing beneath the two old magnolias at the gate and walking between the rows to touch the marble markers themselves, seeing them in a virtual visit offers some reassurance, Kendrick said.
The work “gives comfort to families, to know that we have the integrity and the character to make sure that our beloveds are taken care of in the manner that they deserve,” he said.
Initiated by Arlington
Years of investigations into operations at Arlington revealed mismarked graves, graves with multiple burials, millions of dollars in funds unaccounted for and as many as 70,000 more graves than the 330,000 generally thought to be in the cemetery.
Arlington is the largest and most prominent U.S. military cemetery, but all branches of the service have cemeteries and are bringing their record-keeping up to speed in the wake of the Arlington scandal.
The Army has about 40,000 graves in 27 cemeteries on 17 posts. It hopes to have the records of all of them digitized by June 30.
Fort Bragg, which stretches over more than 250 square miles across four counties, has more than two dozen small burial plots such as old church cemeteries and family graveyards within its boundaries, but only one military burial ground – Main Post Cemetery, on the Spring Lake side of the post.
The cemetery, a piece of land that had been the Mont View Vineyard peach orchard, is accessible to the public without going through a post security gate.
Mark Jordan of Fort Bragg human resources said the cemetery was closed in 1998 except for what the military calls “second interments,” when a dependent’s remains are added to the same gravesite as a soldier or veteran. In those cases, the dependent’s name is inscribed on the back of the original stone.
Jordan said records indicate 3,193 people are buried in the cemetery, which has 2,644 headstones.
Notables buried here include Martha Raye, an actress and singer who traveled all over during World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars to entertain American troops; and Glenn H. English Jr., who received the military’s highest award, the Medal of Honor, for saving his unit during an ambush in Vietnam.
The cemetery also includes soldiers who died during the Persian Gulf War.
A special duty
Tuesday, 15 soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division and the 20th Engineer Brigade worked in sections, photographing the graves and uploading the pictures to another group of soldiers collating the data at computers on post. If necessary, they scrubbed the graves to make sure the lettering was legible and the stones looked their best.
When the information is compiled, discrepancies such as name spellings, dates or grave locations will be investigated and reconciled using additional sources such as marriage and death records and online genealogical sites. Stones that need to be repaired or replaced will be flagged.
Master Sgt. Ron Grosvenor of Fort Bragg Garrison Command said taking care of the cemetery this way is important.
“It could just as easily be one of us in here, and our family coming to visit,” he said. “It helps people remember the other side of being a soldier.”