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Arlington Cemetery: 19th-century technology in a 21st-century world

What year is it?

Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) and the other members of Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee’s Contracting Oversight Subcommittee were again upset on July 29 by the problems of recordkeeping at the Arlington National Cemetery. And the senators were as confused as ever by the answers former cemetery officials offered at a hearing.

“Let me get this straight. It’s 2010,” Brown said, briefly checking the date on his black wrist watch. It was, in fact, 2010, and the cemetery was still using 3X5 cards—an alphabetical and numerical set—to keep up with who was buried where.

For the sake of the former cemetery officials, Brown picked up a laptop computer.

“This is an amazing piece of technology, right here,” he said, showing John Metzler, former cemetery superintendent, what was available to him for recordkeeping in today’s era.

“We’ve got cell phones, iPhones, we’ve got this and that. And you guys are still dealing in cards. I find that just…I just can’t get my head around that,” Brown said, raising his usually even tone of voice.

A news report and a subsequent investigation by the Army Inspector General found numerous problems with records at the cemetery where American soldiers are buried and have been buried for more than 100 years.

The investigation found more than 200 cases of improperly buried veterans and wrongly marked gravesites. And it’s largely the result of antiquated, paper-based recordkeeping stemming from mishandled information technology contracts.

“We’re using 3X5 cards for the people who are the national heroes of this country,” Brown said. “Here it is 2010. We’ve got all this technology, and we’re still dealing in 3X5 cards. It’s a joke.”

Posted by Matthew Weigelt on Jul 30, 2010 at 7:20 PM


Reader Comments

Wed, Sep 1, 2010

Manual records are great, if they are kept accurately. But there should also be electronic records and optical records as well when you are tracking valuable data. Arlington has had funds earmarked for the automation of their records FOR YEARS! (check the public records on this) and yet the automation still has not been done. That is the problem here - improper use of funds... and why.

Mon, Aug 2, 2010 Trail Boss

The VA has a location system where you can find any veteran, including those of our heroes buried in Arlington National Cemetery - http://gravelocator.cem.va.gov/j2ee/servlet/NGL_v1.

Mon, Aug 2, 2010 One of the Living

The only joke here is that a congressman has the audacity to act in such a manner. If information technology was a commodity that hadn't been throttled and corrupted by the congressional process perhaps our fallen heroes would be tracked better? That the limited staff and funds for the National Cemetery System weren't a football for our legislature, we wouldn't be confronted with such histrionics...

Mon, Aug 2, 2010 sotiris DC

MORONS!!! This is disgraceful to the men and women who paid the highest price to protect this country. A PC based should have been implemented in the mid-80's - A DB3 database could easily have handled the replacement of a 3x5 card system. Today the cost of purchasing a basic system is ridiculously low - in the simplest of systems a laptop + external drive for backup could easily replace a 3x5 system and it would even be expandable to handle GPS coordinates. If we keep putting morons in charge of IT this is the result we are going to get. PS I wonder what would happen to a 3x5 system in case of a fire/flood?

Mon, Aug 2, 2010

Nothing wrong with (also) using manual records, for a data set that needs to be available for hundreds of years at a minimum. Automating a bad process does not improve it, and from all reports, it was the process that was broken, not that it hadn't been computerized. At this point, short of spending millions to dig people up, they never will have full confidence in the data.

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