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An online memorial honors millions of deceased veterans buried in U.S. cemeteries

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

For many Americans, Memorial Day includes a visit to a cemetery, honoring their loved ones who died while serving in the military. But visiting a physical space isn't possible for everyone. Enter the Veterans Legacy Memorial. It is an online memorial for millions of deceased U.S. veterans buried in national cemeteries. It launched in 2019. The Veterans Legacy Memorial features an interactive page for every veteran in its database. That means anyone who visits the site can submit a tribute, add biographical information, even photos. This year, the memorial has added 27 new cemeteries to its database, including Arlington National Cemetery. James LaPaglia of the Department of Veterans Affairs helps manage the memorial and joins us now. Welcome.

JAMES LAPAGLIA: Thank you, Juana. It's great to be here.

SUMMERSS: So James, what is the goal of this project? What experiences - what feelings are you hoping people experience when they use this website?

LAPAGLIA: We want to broaden the experience of what you might typically see in a cemetery, where a loved one has left flowers or a note or is standing there talking to their loved ones. And it broadens that experience to a worldwide audience - to those who can contribute to and appreciate the stories of those patriots who we've loved and lost.

SUMMERSS: Tell us a little bit more about the kinds of data that the Veterans Legacy Memorial is making accessible to people.

LAPAGLIA: We just went over 60,000 memories shared to veteran pages.

SUMMERSS: Wow.

LAPAGLIA: And, you know, we see grief. We sometimes see very raw grief, but we also see laughter. We see storytelling. I did this little search on the back end last week about - you know, what are the other topics that are being mentioned? And, you know, I found tributes and content that referenced things like PTSD, veteran suicide, disability, serving under - don't ask, don't tell - burn pits, Agent Orange, the health care that veterans receive from VA medical centers, racism experiences while the servicemember was in the military and more. So it really - VLM - what we're finding, it shows really that intersection of the veteran experience.

SUMMERSS: I spent a little bit of time on this website. The biggest thing that struck me is - I live in Maryland, and multiple members of my family that served in the Army are buried in Leavenworth, in Kansas. The idea of being able to have that experience - have that digital connection while being halfway across the country must be really powerful for people.

LAPAGLIA: I think it is very powerful. You know, we intentionally escalated our ability to make the site interactive in 2020 - in the middle of the pandemic - and that was largely because we weren't gathering, of course, in large numbers for Memorial Day ceremonies. And so we did it intentionally because we still wanted people to have the ability to memorialize their veteran. And that still holds true today - you know, the power of VLM for people to share the history and the story of their veteran's life no matter where they are.

SUMMERSS: I mean, there's so much incredible data. There are so many incredible stories on the site. Are there any that stand out to you?

LAPAGLIA: You know, while we have 4.8 million veteran pages, each page is special to someone. But this one page that I want to try to describe to your listeners really describes the power of VLM. Robert Monroe - he was a Vietnam combat Marine. He died in 2021, and he's interred at Riverside National Cemetery in Southern California. Now, Bob's wife, Linda, has created and continues to create just a masterpiece of Bob's military and his personal life on his VLM page. Not only has she gotten into the box of military memorabilia and photos and scrapbooks to upload almost 200 items to his page, but she's on Bob's page frequently, and she has this running conversation with him about things from the past and things that are going on currently in her life. It's really a love story that not only helps her stay connected to him, but also shows others her amazing Marine husband, who was a father, grandfather, and how important he was to the others around him and the life they shared together.

SUMMERSS: We are talking on the occasion of Memorial Day, but this website is available every day for people, for everyone to use. I am curious - how would you suggest people who may not know any veterans - have any in their family or in their life - interact with this website?

LAPAGLIA: You know, not all veterans are in VLM yet. We do have a way to go. We're not done. We know there's millions of veterans laid to rest at private cemeteries. Their remains may be in an urn on someone's mantle, right? Or their remains may have been scattered somewhere, or they were buried at sea. So, you know, our goal eventually is to have a page for every veteran. But right now, people may not be able to find the veteran that they're connected with. But even if you can't, there's an opportunity to maybe find a veteran who is laid to rest in a cemetery near you. Just look around for someone that might have that local connection, and then it could be just something simple - you know, saying thank you for your service in a comment on their page.

SUMMERSS: What a great call to action. James LaPaglia is a digital services officer at the Department of Veterans Affairs. Thank you so much.

LAPAGLIA: Thanks, Juana. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kai McNamee
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.