PHELPS. No one knows much about him. He had family in Massachusetts. He gave his life fighting for the Union in the Civil War. Beyond that, Arlington National Cemetery has nothing else about him.
Graves such as his are the inspiration behind the cemetery’s new motto: “Honor. Remember. Explore.”
Since 1864, Arlington has been dedicated to the first two words. Now, the cemetery is going a step further, inviting exploration of the historic military cemetery even if a personal visit is not possible.
Arlington National Cemetery has launched ANC Explorer, an online tool and mobile app that allows users to visit the nation’s most famous cemetery from their computers or mobile devices. Front-and-back images of every headstone, monument, memorial and plaque on Arlington’s 624 acres are contained within the app. Name, rank, branch of service, birth and death dates, and other information can also be found. The digital offering is a two-way street. Those who use the new online tools can help the cemetery learn more about those who are laid to rest there.
“We’re going to have more than 300,000 people looking at our website to help us find more,” says Kathryn Condon, ANC’s executive director. “Wouldn’t we like to find out more about who Phelps is? What we really want to do is open up to the American public, to help us find the true history of each and every headstone that’s here.”
A new climate. Condon and ANC’s superintendent, Patrick Hallinan, started their jobs amid a scandal. Highly publicized revelations about the misidentification of remains, antiquated recordkeeping and mismanagement at the cemetery’s highest levels prompted an investigation by the Army’s inspector general in August 2009. Three months later, Secretary of the Army John McHugh ordered a second investigation.
Findings included a lack of accountability for remains, unmarked or improperly marked grave sites, and the mishandling of cremated remains.
ANC’s mission had been compromised by “dysfunctional management, a lack of established policy and procedures, and an overall unhealthy organizational climate,” McHugh said in a 2010 press conference. “That all ends today.”
Keenly aware that the eyes of an angry public were upon them, Condon and Hallinan lost no time in getting to work. On the same day McHugh addressed the media, they told ANC workers that they must hit the ground running and leave the past behind.
“We needed to move forward and do things correctly,” says Hallinan, former director of funeral programs for the National Cemetery Administration. “There was no room for error. I don’t think that Congress or the American people had the patience for any more errors.”
Condon, who previously held the senior civilian position at Army Materiel Command, remembers the staff meeting well. She told the employees that she knew “absolutely nothing about running a cemetery, ‘but that’s why each and every one of you is here. You have made your careers out of running a cemetery. But I do know how to run a large Army organization.’ That was it, and we would be in this together.”
As news of Arlington’s previous mismanagement spread, its offices were flooded with phone calls from people concerned that their loved ones might be buried in the wrong graves. A hotline was established, and Condon, Hallinan and other ANC managers spoke with concerned families from all over America, often late into the night.
The cemetery’s transformation centered on what Hallinan calls the “Three Rs” – reorganize, retrain and retool. Arlington would follow the Army’s standard operating procedures, provide staff and workers with the training they need, and improve or obtain the tools – from backhoes to smartphone maps – to accomplish the mission.
He and Condon had to change Arlington’s culture. Prior to their arrival, the cemetery had no checklist for standard procedures, no consistent supervision of workers, little training, and shortfalls in accountability and responsibility.
“The big items for a healthy and dynamic organization were lacking, and that’s a personal responsibility of the leadership,” Hallinan says. “We hold ourselves to higher standards. People have to believe you have that credibility before they follow you, and that’s how you build that trust and faith – with the employees or with the American people.”
Condon says the situation began to improve when the cemetery went back to following DoD procedures already in place.
“What (Hallinan) and I have focused on is putting together processes, from how we do IT to how we do fiscal management, contracting and the operational side of business,” Condon says. “I don’t think it was because of bureaucracy that (ANC) failed. I think the lack of standards in a bureaucracy is probably what happened.”
Understand the Operation. Hallinan and Condon quickly realized that employee training had not been a priority at Arlington National Cemetery. For example, a backhoe operator employed for 29 years had never received formal instruction. In general, ANC’s managers failed to keep up with training their staff for work performed year after year.
Since 2010, nearly every senior equipment operator and truck driver at ANC has been trained. Cemetery staff members have also been given formal grief-counseling training, and the work of outside contractors is closely monitored and held to higher standards.
Each member of the ANC workforce now has an individual development plan, and their supervisors are held accountable for proper training. Condon says the workers are also cross-trained in other jobs. “You have to understand the operation, and the operation here is to honor the fallen,” she says.
That includes a chain of custody for the burial of remains, and Arlington now has the strictest process in the nation. On the day of interment, the remains of a veteran or servicemember arrive in an urn or casket. They are signed over from the family or a funeral director to an ANC representative, who then meets with family members and goes over all the information provided by phone or email, such as name, rank and date of death. That representative stays with the family throughout the entire process.
Every casket or urn receives a permanent tag for future identification, which is checked against the temporary marker at the grave site. Identification numbers are painted on the concrete grave or urn liners. When a casket is lowered into its grave, the supervisor checks the casket tag and temporary marker for accuracy before signing for the remains from the funeral representative.
“Those are just the checks on the day of interment,” Hallinan says. “Prior to that, a supervisor will go out to the grave site and validate the location, and the equipment operator goes out to make sure he’ll be digging at the right site.”
Before the cemetery closes, all temporary markers are checked again for grave sites completed that day.
A Farewell to Paper. Until 2010, Arlington National Cemetery used a system of index cards and paper charts to keep track of remains in about 260,000 grave sites and urn niches.
“We were using index cards and typing on them to update the burial records,” says Army Maj. Nick Miller, ANC’s chief information officer. “Now everything is electronically generated, from the first call into our call center until we set the headstone and GPS it with 3-inch accuracy. So we really have an audit trail of the burial record, and who is working on that burial record.”
And instead of rooting through more than 400,000 paper records to find a bit of information, staff members now conduct simple searches that deliver data instantly, Miller says.
ANC staff also use a bird’s-eye-view digital map of the cemetery to plan routes for funeral processions, which occur about 100 times per week.
“Our internal management system really allows us to view the entire cemetery digitally,” Miller says. “Of course, getting out in the field is required to do the work. But from a planning perspective, you can see all the grave sites. All of the burial records are linked, so when I want to search a grave site, I can immediately see who’s in that grave site and the type of container they were buried in, and also the depth they were buried at.”
Such precise mapping gives cemetery workers greater confidence in what they’re doing, he adds. “Before they put that backhoe in the ground, they know what to expect, and they’re prepared – to make sure that when they do bury this veteran, that it’s done professionally.”
Condon says that making such changes in two years would have been impossible without Army technology. “We didn’t have to go out and put things on contract. We have turned a corner. We have proven that, by leveraging the Army’s technology, we fixed it.”
The Army Geospatial Center developed ANC’s digital mapping capabilities with a special program that ensures accuracy; it could serve as a model to support operations at 170 national cemeteries managed in the United States and abroad by the departments of the Army, the Interior and Veterans Affairs.
RESTORING TRUST. Another innovation at the cemetery is the online headstone and niche cover designer tool, which allows families to make their inscription decisions before the funeral and prevent misspelled names and other clerical errors.
“Just before the burial is not the moment you want to decide what to put on your loved one’s headstone,” Condon says. “Families have time to think about it, to discuss what they want to do ahead of time, and then we just verify the information on the day their loved one is buried.”
The bottom line for Hallinan and Condon is that trust is restored.
“When I attend a full military funeral and see the respect and honor shown, all these issues pale in their significance,” Hallinan says. “Arlington is in good hands, it has good leadership, and it has people who deeply care about the mission here. And that resonates with the workforce. Going forward, the American people can be confident in Arlington.”
Sometimes, after Condon has testified at a congressional hearing, she’ll walk among the rows of headstones “just to make sure I never lose sight of why I’m here. And I would like to give a shoutout to the veterans service organizations, including The American Legion, for putting those issues on the front page. When there are problems, they need to be fixed. This has enabled us to focus on what truly needs to be restored here: the faith of the American public that we’ve got it right.”
Philip M. Callaghan is media marketing director for The American Legion.