(USA TODAY) -- Arlington National Cemetery is the first national burial site to go digital 4G.
A smartphone app due out in the fall will tap into the power of GPS technology and help visitors navigate through the more than 250,000 graves at Arlington, providing military-grade accuracy.
"All we need is better 3G or 4G coverage in the cemetery, and it's coming," says Army Maj. Nicholas Miller, chief information officer at Arlington.
The idea may catch on: The Department of Veterans Affairs, which manages 131 national cemeteries, is considering a similar system, says Arlington spokeswoman Jennifer Lynch.
The system is a first for any federal cemetery and more accurate and up-to-date than anything in the private sector. It is a byproduct of Arlington's effort to move on from a mismanagement scandal that broke two years ago. An Army Inspector General investigation reported double-booked grave sites, graves with no headstones, unidentified urns dumped in a mass grave and millions of dollars wasted on information management systems that were ordered but never delivered or installed.
The modernization covers new equipment and procedures for everything from taking phone calls to burials and included a still-ongoing review of the 259,978 grave sites and urn niches.
A high-tech system combines aerial photographic maps with digitized records to keep track of urns and grave sites, schedule an average of 27 burials a day, plan procession routes and other events, and give the public access to photos and maps with 3-inch accuracy for each of more than 300,000 individuals buried at Arlington.
The system also has an online component allowing anyone with Internet access to view any grave site, for "virtual visits and better planning of their trip" to Washington, says Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, who chairs the subcommittee on contracting oversight that investigated the scandal and recommended solutions.
McCaskill says she urged the Army two years ago to use its combat technology to "not only fix some of the heartbreak" at Arlington but to "bring this cemetery, with the geospatial tools that you have, closer to people across America and the world."
"I think that's exactly what they've done. and I think it's very exciting," McCaskill says.
Kathryn Condon, executive director of the Army National Cemeteries Program, holds up a tattered map and a 3-by-5-inch index card to illustrate how burial records were kept when she arrived - exactly two years ago come Sunday - to whip Arlington into shape.
"We were one fire away from having all our records destroyed," Condon says. Fixing the problem "was real simple - give them the right training. Give them the standards, and most importantly make sure they have the right equipment."
Rep. Rob Wittman of Virginia, chairman of the oversight and investigations subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, says Arlington's new leadership has done a good job but that the new system needs more redundancy and third-party auditing.
"Time will be the judge," Wittman says.
He also wants Arlington's next chief to be a commissioned military officer subject to the military code of justice, which he says will provide swift action if necessary. Multiple investigations of Arlington's former leadership failed to find prosecutable evidence of criminal behavior, which Wittman said leaves him "very, very frustrated."
When the scandal broke, hundreds of families asked the cemetery to look into discrepancies on their loved ones' paperwork. Scott Warner of Canton, Ohio, was granted an exhumation in September 2010 to verify that his son, Heath, was in his casket. Warner believes the cemetery remains unprepared to handle such requests with dignity, but he is satisfied that a new chain of custody procedure has been implemented to prevent discrepancies.
"That's really good," he said.
After comparing photographs of every grave site and urn niche and digitized paper records, 32,716 discrepancies have yet to be reconciled. Condon says no new burial mistakes have been discovered, but she acknowledges that more could exist.
"You find them when you go to put someone in the ground," she says.
The mess at Arlington was detailed in an Army Inspector General investigation that reported urns had been recovered from a cemetery landfill, people had been buried under the wrong gravestone or without one, and that 211 discrepancies in records or gravestones were found in one of Arlington's 70 sections. The Inspector General faulted Arlington's former superintendent, John Metzler, and his deputy, Thurman Higginbotham, who spent $5.5 million in seven years on contracts to modernize the cemetery's record-keeping system but never produced a finished product.
The price of mismanagement was also borne by cemetery families who found discrepancies in their loved ones' burial records. Most called a new call center established to investigate their complaints and accepted the military's resolution of the discrepancies.
Condon assigned 70 soldiers from Arlington's ceremonial Old Guard to photograph the front and back of every grave stone, urn niche and grave marker. The photographs were linked to the digitized records and to a computerized map based on aerial photographs that provide military-grade accuracy to administrators planning a procession or event, and to families and researchers looking for individuals interred in the 624 acres of grounds.
Past practices at Arlington contributed to poorly tracked and shifting grave sites, she says. And much has changed:
• New burial procedures require a cemetery administrator to act as a liaison with families and then verify that burial record numbers painted on the concrete casket liners and lids match grave markers and tags on each casket.
• Families can view burial records and design tombstones on Arlington's web site before a burial happens.
• Graves are now tamped with pneumatic hand tampers instead of a backhoe, and the dirt is sifted so it tamps more evenly, to reduce shifting and sinking.
• Buried urns are now enclosed in 18-inch concrete boxes, so they'll be harder to accidentally dig up and toss in a landfill.
• Small new earth movers and cranes lower caskets into the ground and cover them, to reduce the shifting of the earth, damage to the turf and disturbance to neighboring graves.
Although some elements of those procedures existed before, "the whole process is new," says cemetery administrator retired colonel Jack Lechner.