Rosemary Brown is standing over the grave of her son at Arlington National Cemetery when someone catches her eye. It’s a boy in khaki shorts and muddy shoes, juggling a clunky camera and the Motorola Xoom he got for his 17th birthday five days earlier.
“May I ask what you’re doing?” Brown inquires. The boy begins to peck at the Xoom tablet, and in seconds the image that Brown has come all the way from Cartwright, Okla., to see fills the screen. It’s the white marble headstone of Army Special Forces Staff Sgt. Jason L. Brown, killed by small-arms fire in Afghanistan three years ago this day. Her face brightens.
“Most of Jason’s family and friends are in Oklahoma and Texas. For them to be able to see his grave…,” she says, her voice breaking.
Richard “Ricky” Gilleland III — 11th-grader and Junior Future Business Leaders of America computer ace — has succeeded where the Army failed: He has created the only digitized record of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans laid to rest at Arlington. His website, preserveandhonor.com, is a reverent catalog of the fallen, and one young man’s response to a scandal of Army mismanagement, mismarked graves and unmarked remains that has rocked this hallowed place for two years.
“It’s a tool to help remember people. They can go on and think, ‘Wow, look at all these people who gave their lives just so I can walk around,’ ” Ricky says.
His “project,” as he calls it, won’t fix Arlington’s considerable problems. A commission led by former Sens. Bob Dole and Max Cleland was formed to attempt that.
But his simple website has brought a measure of order and relief to military families unnerved by reports first disclosed by Salon.com in 2009: unidentified remains in graves thought to be empty, one service member buried on top of another, an unmarked urn that turned up in a dirt landfill.
Thirty-six Californians buried at Arlington served in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The father of one Marine was so disturbed that he had the remains of his son — a 19-year-old private killed in Iraq by a roadside blast in 2006 — disinterred last year. He searched the coffin that held his son’s ravaged body himself. A left-arm tattoo confirmed no mistake had been made, reassurance that came at a terrible price.
An investigation by the Army inspector general concluded in June that at least 211 graves were mislabeled. Top brass were fired. And the management of the 147-year-old American landmark, where about 300,000 fallen troops rest, suddenly seemed as chaotic as its uniform lines of unadorned white markers are orderly.
Cemetery operations were declared antiquated. Arlington still relies on paper records and index cards to maintain 200 acres where presidents, astronauts, freed slaves and heroes of every American war lie. “One fire, flood or coffee spill away” from irreplaceable loss, Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) warned.
While discussing Arlington’s outdated record-keeping over dinner one night last summer, Ricky — who had just gotten an A in his Programming 1 class at school — announced, “I can fix that.” His mother didn’t doubt it. She still remembered her older sons complaining they were locked out of the computer again because Ricky, age 4, had changed all the passwords.
“He was the kid who figured things out,” Elisabeth Van Dyk, 46, said of her youngest. “He took apart remote controls and his brothers’ toys and put them back together again. You could trust he knew what he was talking about.”
Ricky didn’t have his driver’s license yet, so he hitched a ride with his mom on her 45-minute commute from their home in Stafford, Va., to her workplace in Washington. He hopped the Metro the rest of the way to the cemetery. This was July and he wanted an early start before the heat set in.
His focus was Section 60, where about 700 veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are buried, more than anywhere else in the country. He combed all 18 acres of it, row by row, and found more than just names. At one grave was a baby’s sonogram; he thought about the child who would never know his dad. He saw parents who looked a lot like his own, standing, staring.
Ricky took it all in. This is a side of service he had never fully appreciated, even for a military brat — his great-great-great-grandfather fought at Gettysburg, his father is a retired Army sergeant first class, his stepfather is a retired Navy lieutenant commander and both of his brothers are Air Force senior airmen. (He intends to apply to the Naval Academy at Annapolis and wants to be an officer.)
“Sometimes I look at the birth date and they are about the same age as my brothers, or a year older than me. It puts a whole new perspective on life to think there are 18- or 19-year-old kids who give their lives,” he said.
One afternoon while he was out here taking pictures, a woman asked, “What number is my son?” She wanted to know where he fell in a casualty count that is nearing 6,000 for both wars. Ricky couldn’t answer her, but later he told his mom that he didn’t want them to be numbers; he wanted them to be remembered as people.
“From that point forward,” his mom recalled, “it seemed to turn into more than a project.”
He spent afternoons in a bookstore poring over Web development manuals for the right program language to create the site. At night, in his family’s study, his computer hooked up to a 40-inch flat screen and his keyboard on a snack table in front of the couch, he input hundreds of names, photos, links to obituaries and newspaper accounts; he created a space to blog tributes.
By mid-October, the site was launched.
Army Times wrote him up. The local TV station did a piece. At North Stafford High, he was a minor celebrity. Friends and families around the country could view a loved one’s grave thousands of miles away with the click of a mouse. So far, the site has received nearly 116,000 hits and about 300 emails, like the one from Jean Lockey, widow of Army Col. Jon M. Lockey, killed in Iraq on July 6, 2007: “I now have a site to go to when life overwhelms me, a place where I can pretend for a moment I am right there.”
And Sarah Hall, mother of 1st Lt. Benjamin John Hall, killed in Afghanistan on July 31, 2007: “Ben was … the light of my life and I miss him every second of every day. To know that his loss is felt by others and acknowledged with such love and honor as you have shown here lifts my heart.…Thank you.”
About 10% of the service members killed in Iraq and Afghanistan are at Arlington; the rest are in cemeteries around the country. Ricky’s next goal is to enlist the help of the American Legion and record them all on the website. He figures it could be done in a few months.
But the work at Arlington is never really finished. Sadly, there are always graves to add, and he comes out every few weeks to update the list. That’s what brings him here today, with his mom and stepdad, in the back seat of the silver Honda she said he could have if he stayed on the honor roll, which he did. (If his grades drop, she has threatened to sell the car for a dollar.)
He’s eager to try out the Xoom. It’s a gorgeous April Sunday after a hard rain. The red tulips stand straight as soldiers at the cemetery gates, but the grounds are soaked. Ricky starts patrolling the far end of Section 60 where the new arrivals are. It’s muddy and his sneakers sink three inches into what he realizes is a grave so fresh the sod hasn’t gone in yet. He winces and carries on. No way can he wear those shoes to school Monday.
That’s what he’s doing when Rosemary Brown spots him. She comes here twice a year — with her husband on the anniversary of Jason’s death and by herself on his birthday in September. (“It’s a Mom thing. That’s my time.”) In between, Ricky’s website might be the next best thing.
“Continue this, please,” she tells the boy she’s only just met. He’s shy and a little awkward, not so different from the one she raised. “It’s so important that they never, ever be forgotten. Ever.”
“I will,” Ricky promises. “You can bet on it.”