Ricky Gilleland, 17, has set up a website documenting graves of every service… (Chris Usher, For The Times )
Reporting from Arlington, Va. — 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.