In our growing digital world, where families increasingly live farther away from one another, and the realities of COVID-19 keep us distanced within our own communities, the need to develop a new, modern way to memorialize service members has become evident. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) National Cemetery Administration (NCA) recognized the need to honor veterans in our digital age. On Memorial Day 2019, phase one of NCA’s new platform, Veterans Legacy Memorial (VLM), launched using Keeper’s online memorial solution (www.va.gov/remember).
Phase one provided military service and memorial information on an individualized web profi le page for each of 3.7 million veterans laid to rest in VA national cemeteries. Each Veteran’s page includes name, dates of birth and death, service history, as well as location within a national cemetery.
Veteran Affairs Undersecretary for Memorial Affairs Randy Reeves has described the importance of preserving the legacy of veterans, stating, “Each and every one of us dies two deaths. We die the first death when breath leaves us, but we only truly die sometime in the future when no one speaks our name or tells our story.” VLM’s goal is to ensure no veteran’s story ever dies.
On Memorial Day of 2020, VLM expanded its features and capabilities to enable VLM site visitors, including family, friends, fellow service members, and other members of the public, to leave messages of condolence and share their stories and memories. All messages are reviewed to ensure they are respectful and appropriate before being posted online. With more than 6,000 of these “tributes” posted to date, VLM has been able to provide a comforting and meaningful platform for veteran families, especially throughout the Coronavirus pandemic, when many families could not pay their respects to their loved ones in person.
A recent addition to VLM is the inclusion of headstone/marker photographs and a mapping tool for approximately two million VLM profile pages, and more profile pages will be populated with these items as additional photos and Geographic Information System (GIS) data are gathered by NCA.
“Online memorialization becomes more prominent these days, allowing people to remotely honor the service and sacrifice of our veterans,” said Undersecretary Reeves. “The increased capabilities of VLM are in place at a critical time to ensure ‘no Veteran ever dies’ by telling their stories to a larger audience through an enhanced digital platform. In addition, VLM allows people to express their appreciation and gratitude for the dedicated service of our nation’s heroes.”
Lisa Pozzebon, NCA’s executive director of cemetery operations explains that “particularly in these times where people can’t get out and about as easily as they might have … it’s an opportunity that even from far away they can go online and leave a memory, pay tribute, talk about what that veteran means to them, and what they mean to our country.”
Keeper Memorials, the digital memorialization solutions provider for funeral homes and cemeteries, was selected as the product of choice by the Department of Veterans Affairs. The Keeper team was able to leverage its memorialization expertise in the deathcare profession to help build the VLM platform.
Highlighting the teamwork involved in this important undertaking, Mandy Benoualid, president of Keeper, explains, “The Keeper team is fortunate to work with the United States Department of Veterans Affairs National Cemetery Administration, alongside GovernmentCIO, on this ambitious project. Keeper’s mission has always been to provide families with the tools to preserve and share the life stories of their loved ones with easy to use and collaborative technology. Helping veteran families celebrate and cherish the legacy of their loved ones is truly an honor.”
Publishing information about veterans and their service history also presents an opportunity for researchers, historians, students, and professionals to share historical and educational information about veterans and the cemeteries themselves, some of which date to the Civil War and Revolutionary War. “Using online tools to enable family and friends to reach out to loved ones following a death is not new in funeral service,” explains Benoualid. “Working with the VLM team, we were able to enhance Keeper’s application to specifically memorialize veterans, while also imagining how VLM can be used as a tool for researchers and students alike.”
As spaces of historical and cultural significance, cemeteries are reflections of our most important values. Today, people from around the world are able to honor the sacrifice of veterans and veteran families with the click of a button. The building of VLM serves as an example of what is possible when we prioritize the importance of legacy. VLM continues to expand its features and capabilities, ensuring that the names of veterans are forever spoken.
Mandy Benoualid is president of Keeper Memorials.