The senator in charge of an inquiry into the management of Arlington National Cemetery toured the cemetary on Friday, watching as as Army officials showcased new iPhone and Google imagery technology that is helping the cemetery keep track of nearly 260,000 headstones of fallen American soldiers.
Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) said she is encouraged by reforms made by the Army to improve its recordkeeping at the cemetery after an explosive investigation last year revealed improperly marked or unmarked gravesites.
In an hourlong briefing, officials explained how they are improving their burial records by using an iPhone application used to take pictures of each individual headstone and upload the photos and information like date of birth and date of death to a central database. Officials are now comparing that information to their old print records. They estimate they are 86 percent of the way through.
McCaskill was also shown how Google imagery will enable families to look up online where their loved one is buried. The cemetery will also enable families to design their own headstone online. She described the technology as an improvement and "very cool." The hope is to make the gravesite records and interactive map of the cemetery available to the public by February.
"I think this process has been painful but I'm encouraged today. I'm encouraged because there are new systems in place, there are new processes in place," McCaskill said, after visiting Section 60 the site, many deceased soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan are buried.
"Ultimately families are going to be able to pull up in their homes and look at the gravesite of their loved one. Be able to see the headstone and once again have that comfort of knowing they are laid to rest on the most sacred ground we have in this country," she added.
McCaskill blamed prior management and Army contractors who operated with "heartbreaking incompetence" in mismanaging the cemetery records.
"This place was being run by bailing wire and chewing gum, instead of with competent professionalism," she said.
A new management team was put in place in June 2010 to begin to address the problems.
McCaskill's Senate subcommittee on contracting oversight is set to receive a final report in December from the special cemetery task force. She told reporters she is confident that the Army has a handle on the problem of mismarked or unmarked gravesites.
"There had been a significant number of those uncovered, it does appear that that number is not growing as they continue to look at more and more of these individual gravesites. Most importantly, I think that going forward they are never going to have this problem again," she said.