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Article posted: 6/8/2013 8:00 AM

Fort Sheridan Cemetery gets high tech review

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There are soldiers who served with Lt. Col. George Custer at the Battle of Little Big Horn buried at the Fort Sheridan Cemetery near Highland Park, as well as veterans from many conflicts dating from the Civil War.

But to the eight soldiers and four civilian Army experts who have spent the past few days here, each of the 2,241 headstones that encircle a grassy open area have special significance.

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"We've got to get it right while we're here," said Command Sgt. Maj. Bill Bissonette, who normally is tending to business four hours north at Fort McCoy in Wisconsin.

He is leading a team that has been digitally documenting the grave sites and verifying records at Fort Sheridan, part of a national effort to erase the sting of embarrassing findings disclosed in 2010 at the Arlington National Cemetery.

Archaic record keeping, organizational chaos, and misidentified or misplaced remains were among the problems at Arlington that led to the establishment of an accountability task force and a five-stage program to raise standards throughout the system and provide loved ones anywhere in the world with pinpoint access to grave markers and other information.

Fort Sheridan, the former headquarters of the Army recruiting command, closed as an active military installation in 1995. However, the Army retained responsibility for the cemetery, established in 1889, and it is under the jurisdiction of Fort McCoy. The Lake County Forest Preserve District, which acquired 259 acres of the former base, is responsible for care and maintenance of the cemetery.

"The one thing we did not dispose of was this cemetery," Bissonette said. "Frankly, I'm glad we have this mission."

Ultimately, the information will become part of a massive database that allows anyone with Internet access to search for and locate a specific name, see the grave markers depicted on a satellite image of the cemetery and view the headstone. Information associated with the burial, known as a record of interment, as well as notable historic information about a gravesite also will be accessible via a website or free smartphone app.

"Just because they're deceased, doesn't mean they're not part of the Army family anymore," Bissonette said.

The system became publicly available last November for Arlington. Information from other sites including Fort Sheridan, is expected to be available online in about a year.

This past March, a different team plotted the coordinates of each grave marker at Fort Sheridan -- accurate to within 10 centimeters -- in advance of the next step.

"We're in Phase 3 now, which is the actual collection of the data and the photographs for the headstones. It's a permanent record, forever," Bissonette said.

The mission is high tech but the hub of the operation has been a tent adjoining the cemetery with folding tables cluttered with laptops and smartphones. Photos of the front and back of each marker are taken near ground level. Images are matched with records that have been scanned into a database maintained at Arlington, verified for accuracy and corrected as needed. Information to be checked could include details such as a grave being moved at the family's request, for example.

With the first burial occurring well over a century ago, that can be a challenge. According to Bissonette, the work at Fort Sheridan has revealed three locations where a body should be but there is no headstone. Two are babies who died at the turn of the century and the third involves a burial recorded in 1921, he said. Further review of the cases will determine whether headstones should be erected.

The U.S. Army Installation Management Command, which is in charge of day to day operations of Army installations worldwide, oversees the effort. It has been charged with reviewing and validating records for more than 45,000 graves at 29 cemeteries on 19 Army sites. Fort Sheridan Cemetery is the only one in Illinois under IMCOM jurisdiction, and may be the only open military cemetery not located on a military installation, according to Bissonette.

One of IMCOM teams, led by Pete Kendrick, has been working with Bissonette's contingent and training them to use the system.

"It's not, `Point your cellphone or camera and click,'" Kendrick said. "We're going to get it right." That involves details such as making sure the stones are centered, that there is a certain amount of grass showing and that there is nothing extraneous in the image, for example.

"You can zoom in on these pictures," added Bissonette. "The last thing I need is Pete in the background."

There are about 35 to 70 burials each year at Fort Sheridan, according to Bissonette. Headstones are provided for eligible veterans from any branch of the service and their family. Eligible means they have to have died in active duty, retired from the military or had a significant award or disability.

Kendrick said what began as a bad situation at Arlington has produced a "tremendous amount of good".

"The biggest thing for all of us is this is really a privilege," he said.

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