Night after night this summer, troops from the Army's historic Old Guard have left their immaculately pressed dress blues, white gloves and shiny black boots at home to slip into Arlington National Cemetery in T-shirts and flip-flops to photograph each and every grave with an iPhone.
The sometimes eerie task to photograph more than 219,000 grave markers and the front of more than 43,000 sets of cremated remains in the columbarium is part of the Army's effort to account for every grave and to update and fully digitize the cemetery's maps. The Old Guard performs its work at night to escape the summer heat and to avoid interrupting funerals.
Last year, a scandal over mismanagement at the nation's most hallowed burial ground revealed unmarked and mismarked graves. Congress then mandated that the cemetery account for the graves of the more than 330,000 people interred in the cemetery. Markers may bear more than one name, such as a service member and spouse.
The photos taken at night are matched with other records to find discrepancies that need to be fixed, and officials say it's too early in the process to draw any conclusions. Military officials hope they can eventually use the photos to create an online database for the public. Four million people annually visit the cemetery.
The Old Guard troops typically escort remains and fire three-volley salutes at military funerals. When taking photos, they have middle-of-the-night run-ins with rabbits, foxes and deer in the cemetery, which is situated on the estate where Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee once lived.
At least one of the soldiers, Sgt. Yvens Saintil, 26, of Philadelphia, who has done two tours in Iraq, says he has friends buried in the cemetery. He has taken time to find their graves and pay respects, even though his duties didn't include photographing their graves.
"At first I was kind of sad a little bit, but it's just part of the mission to continue your mission," Saintil says while standing in the columbarium shortly after sunrise on a recent morning.
The mission is called Task Force Christman, in honor of Pvt. William Henry Christman, an Easton, Pa., native and Civil War soldier who was the first soldier buried at Arlington. The troops executing it are from Delta Company of the 1st Battalion of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, known as the Old Guard -- the Army's official ceremonial unit, which provides escorts to the president and helps put on military funerals.
The troops say they take seriously their role in restoring order to the cemetery. They reported to cemetery managers any problems, such as a few graves with duplicative headstones, so the issues could be resolved.
"It's something that's important that needs to be done so that family members can come out here and understand where they need to go to find their loved ones," said Spc. Matthew Caruso, 24, of Staatsburg, N.Y. "It's a good feeling, but it can be pretty stressful and it's a lot of hard work and a lot of walking."