It’s as American as apple pie. The sight of Boy Scouts placing American flags at the graves of veterans provokes images of a Norman Rockwell painting. But the reality of finding all those graves is not so picturesque and one local man is using technology to modernize the process.
Boy Scout Troop 91 has been carrying on this Memorial Day tradition at McArthur’s Elk Cemetery since local pharmacist David Gill took on the work as an Eagle Scout project in 1978. Since then, the cemetery and the number of veterans buried there have grown every year. Well over 6,000 people including 820 veterans are buried in 14 sections along the Route 93 hillside, making the task both daunting and time consuming.
McArthur resident and Boy Scout volunteer Bruce Knox is all too familiar with the challenges of this project. For eight years, Knox has volunteered either as Scout Master or in affiliation with the Scouts. They use a combination of resources including an outdated hand-drawn map and a list of names provided by the Vinton County Veterans Services Office.
“Different people through the ages have provided lists and maps of where the graves are to facilitate the placement of flags but we don’t have anything that is absolutely accurate,” Knox explained. “Each team is equipped with a very rough map and a list of veterans that we think are in their section. But there are some people buried in different places than the map says or that we can’t find at all.”
It takes at least five hours to do the placement, depending on the number and experience of volunteers. “One is hidden by peonies. Another is in a bunch of poison ivy,” Knox said. “Sometimes they’re just hard to locate.”
After years of thinking that there must be some better way to do the work, Knox has finally found a solution. He is literally a man on a mission, working on borrowed time and trying to electronically map the entire cemetery in just two weeks.
“I kept thinking how great it would be to use GPS to map the cemetery, but quickly learned that the recreational GPS units everyone has for geocaching and the like are not very accurate,” Knox explained. He went on to say that most mass market GPS units will lead you in the general vicinity but not always to a precise location. Since graves may be just two feet from each other, precision is vital for success.
Unfortunately, purchasing a professional-grade mapping system is cost prohibitive for a Boy Scout troop. So Knox pursued the next best option, contacting Precision Laser and Instrument to rent equipment. The company deals a handheld unit made by Trimble that uses U.S. and Russian satellites to achieve accuracy within six inches.
After hearing about the community service the equipment will be used for, Precision Laser and Instrument offered to loan the equipment for two weeks and provide free support. “Municipalities, construction companies, all kinds of people use these things. I’ve been really impressed so far.”
With help from son Conner, they have made it through three full sections of the cemetery in three days. “We are working as quickly as possible because I just don’t know how long it will take,” he said.
Mapping each grave and entering the data in the unit takes about 15 seconds per grave. This process includes recording at least ten satellite observations per grave. “It’s kind of wild to look down and see that you’re picking up 15 satellites and some have an ‘R’ meaning Russian,” Knox laughed.
Conner photographs each headstone. They are mapping and photographing every grave, not just those of veterans. But Knox is conscious of the fact that the work will just begin once the data is collected on-site. Post processing the data and creating the resource Scouts will use later will be tedious.
And then there is second part of the project he hopes to tackle.
While seeking an answer to his problem, Knox contacted friend and Radcliff native Natalie Cottrill who works for www.ancestry.com. She referred Knox to the website www.billiongraves.com where volunteers submit pictures of graves and transcribe data from the pictures, creating a searchable database for genealogists.
“They are building a community of people whose interests are in this kind of thing. I’m doing this partly to make my life easier but it will hopefully make other lives easier too. We are a long way from done but I think it will be worth it,” he said.