Night after night this summer, members of the Army’s historic Old Guard have slipped into Arlington National Cemetery in T-shirts and flip-flops to photograph each and every grave.
The sometimes eerie task to photograph more than 219,000 grave markers and the more than 43,000 names of cremated remains in the columbarium is part of the Army’s effort to account for every grave and to update and fully digitize the cemetery’s maps.
The soldiers from the Old Guard performs its work at night to escape the summer heat and to avoid interrupting funerals.
Last year, a scandal involving mismanagement at the nation’s most hallowed burial ground revealed unmarked and mismarked graves. Congress then mandated that the cemetery account for the graves of the more than 330,000 people interred in the cemetery. Markers may bear more than one name, such as a service member and spouse.
The iPhone photos taken at night are matched with other records to find discrepancies that need to be fixed, and officials say it’s too early in the process to draw any conclusions. Military officials hope they can eventually use the photos to create an online database for the public. Four million people annually visit the cemetery.
Soldiers from Old Guard typically escort remains and fire three-volley salutes at military funerals. When taking photos, they have middle-of-the-night run-ins with rabbits, foxes and deer in the cemetery, which is situated on the estate where Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee once lived.
One soldier, Spc. Raymond Piron, 22, of Detroit, says he was working one night in an old section of the cemetery when he felt something tap him on the shoulder. He turned around, but he was alone.
Another soldier, Sgt. Yvens Saintil, 26, of Philadelphia, who has done two tours in Iraq, says he has friends buried in the cemetery. He has taken time to find their graves and pay respects, even though his duties didn’t include photographing their graves.
“At first I was kind of sad a little bit, but it’s just part of the mission to continue your mission,” Sgt. Saintil says while standing in the columbarium shortly after sunrise on a recent morning.
The mission is called Task Force Christman, in honor of Pvt. William Henry Christman, an Easton, Pa., native and Civil War soldier who was the first soldier buried at Arlington. The troops executing it are from Delta Company of the 1st Battalion of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, known as the Old Guard - the Army’s official ceremonial unit, which provides escorts to the president and helps with military funerals.
With an average of 27 funerals conducted daily at the cemetery, leaders from the Old Guard decided to slip about 60 troops in each night and send them home before the cemetery opened at 8 a.m. Initially, the men wore basic Army utility uniforms, but they later switched to comfortable civilian clothes after it was determined the photos were of better quality without the light reflected off the patches on their uniforms.
The troops have walked Section 60, where loved ones commonly leave whiskey bottles and children’s art at the graves of those killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Section 27, where about 1,500 black soldiers from the Civil War were laid to rest.