Fort McCoy News July 12, 2013

McCoy Soldiers help document cemetery records

Fort McCoy Soldiers conducted work in early June to support the process of verifying and digitizing grave records at the Army cemetery at Fort Sheridan, Ill. Fort McCoy has responsibility for the Fort Sheridan cemetery as a result of a Base Realignment and Closure Action that closed the facility in 1995.

Garrison Command Sergeant Major Command Sgt. Maj. Bill Bissonette was appointed by Garrison Commander Col. Steven W. Nott to lead the 12-member team.

PHOTO 1 cemetery
Sgt. John Roloson (far left) of the Fort McCoy Garrison Headquarters and
Headquarters Company ensures the area around a headstone is free of debris
before photographing it as part of the process of verifying and digitizing Fort
Sheridan, Ill., cemetery records. Sgt. 1st Class Lawrence Parks (center) of
Headquarters and Headquarters Company and Staff Sgt. David Marshall
of the 11th Battalion (Military Intelligence), 100th Training Division discuss
and plan the next area to document.
Contributed photo

Similar efforts are taking place throughout the nation. The Armywide mission evolved from reports of inaccurate and incomplete gravesite records at the Arlington National Cemetery near Washington D.C., according to the Installation Management Command (IMCOM). Consequently, each installation established a Garrison Gravesite Accountability Task Force to digitally document all burial locations within Army cemeteries. Bissonette said the Fort Sheridan project and other Army cemetery projects used these procedures. The work is part of a five-phase process to verify data and to establish standardization throughout the system.

Soldiers from Fort McCoy arrived at the Fort Sheridan cemetery June 3 to learn procedures to photograph each gravesite, and verify that information for each gravesite was correct.

Bissonette said the data eventually will be formatted to allow people to use the Internet to search for a specific name, and to find that person's headstone and see it graphically depicted on a satellite image of the cemetery.

The capabilities also may include being able to access relevant historical data about a person buried at an Army cemetery and giving these sites a GIS location that will allow cemetery visitors to use a smart phone app to find a specific gravesite at an Army cemetery.

IMCOM team representatives said they expect to reach 100 percent accountability at IMCOM post cemeteries by the end of summer 2013, with sustainability attained by mid-2014. The online database is expected to be available in late 2014.

The Army's goal is to complete the basic work and have all cemetery information in a centralized database. Fort McCoy's participation in the project was part of a five-phase approach to sustainable, standardized cemetery operations, he said.

PHOTO 2 cemetery
1st Sgt. Justin Maloney (right) and Spc. Luke Borchardt of the Fort
McCoy Garrison Headquarters and Headquarters Company discuss
their work verifying and digitizing Fort Sheridan, Ill., cemetery records
with Susan Chandler of the Installation Management Command
Headquarters cemetery operations team.
Contributed photo

The comprehensiveness of the process will give 100 percent confidence to people visiting a gravesite that the headstone accurately depicts who is buried at a site. The approach exhibits the proper respect and dignity to the veterans interred in these cemeteries while allowing their Family members, relatives and others to locate them and pay the proper respect, Bissonette said.

"All of the Fort McCoy Soldiers participating in it were volunteers," Bissonette said. "They took the work very seriously, performed outstandingly and were very respectful when they were on the cemetery grounds. At the end of the mission, everyone involved felt honored to have been part of the mission."

The Soldiers were dedicated to accuracy, very thorough, and paid close attention to detail to ensure standardization.

The photographs of the headstones, for example, showed the front and back of the gravestones. The headstones had to be centered in the photos, show a certain amount of grass and ensure there wasn't anything extraneous in the image, such as people, vehicles, etc., Bissonette said.

Personnel from an IMCOM team verified the Fort McCoy results and data, which is part of a pain-staking procedure to verify, cross-check and re-verify data to ensure it is correct.

After having a nice day to begin the project, team members had to endure a number of inclement-weather days, he said.
Team members also had to overcome some of the gaps in the information.

Bissonette said the Fort Sheridan cemetery records date to the late 1800s, and many of the older records existed only in a hand-written format.

Another challenge was that the maintenance of the records currently is covered by three regulations, which don't always have the same procedures and standards, he said. Part of the standardization procedures will include having one regulation to cover all the pertinent information about managing and operating Army cemeteries.

After the work is completed, it's expected the Army will establish procedures and standards about how to update future gravesite information, he said.

Approximately three to seven people are buried at the Fort Sheridan cemetery each month.

Burial eligibility is limited to servicemembers who have died on active duty, retired from the military, had a significant award such as the Medal of Honor or a Purple Heart, or have a 100 percent service-related disability. Their immediate Family members are also authorized to be interred with them.

Although the Army designated Fort McCoy to provide operations control, the Lake County Forest Preserve provides exceptional maintenance support, he said.

"We have a great relationship with them, and they are dedicated to maintaining high standards," Bissonette said. "When we had a (high-ranking Army official) visit they said, 'I wish Arlington looked this good.' That was pretty high praise."