By Steve B. Brooks
For two or three hours a night, 16-year-old Ricky Gilleland sits at his computer. But he’s not playing World of Warcraft or Call of Duty, nor is he chatting with friends or updating his status on Facebook.
Gilleland instead spends that time updating a database of the U.S. servicemembers killed in operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom and now buried at Arlington National Cemetery. While it may not be a normal activity for a teenager, it allows Gilleland to mesh a favorite activity – Web development – with a deep love of the military.
“I have a lot of military members in my family, and I’ve been into the military for a long time,” said Gilleland, noting his father will soon be retired from the Army, his stepfather is retired Navy, and his two brothers currently are serving in the Air Force. “And some of it came from the fact I’d just finished up a Web class. All of it just seemed like a good reason to do this.”
Gilleland was also motivated by articles he read about mismarked graves at Arlington and an antiquated filing system for the graves that still kept records on index cards. So the junior at North Stafford High School in Stafford, Va., decided to do something that would make it easier for the families of deceased servicemembers to visit their loved ones.
Gilleland’s website, http://preserveandhonor.com/contact, does just that. Gilleland and his family members spent dozens of hours at Arlington, photographing headstones and gathering information on servicemembers buried in Section 60, which includes many graves of OIF and OEF veterans.
“It took about two months to create the site, and I probably spent 100 hours going over to Arlington to catalog the graves and take pictures to upload to the site,” said Gilleland.
Once he gathered the information, he loaded it into a database that now allows visitors to search for a gravesite by name, year and military branch. The site will provide the exact location of the burial plot, as well as links to other websites that include obituary information and pictures. So far, Gilleland has inputted more than 900 names into the database; he continues to go to Arlington every couple of weeks to collect more names and photos.
And the feedback that Gilleland has received has been very positive. “After some articles were in the newspaper and on TV about this, I think I probably got 300-400 emails from families of soldiers buried at Arlington telling me how much they appreciated this, and how glad they were to have a site like this to go to,” Gilleland said. “And my dad is stationed at Fort Bragg, and a number of his friends have all told him what a great thing this is.”
Eventually, Gilleland would like to include in his database grave listings for all those servicemembers killed in OIF or OEF buried throughout the country. Those who know of those servicemembers can submit names and gravesite information to Gilleland through his website at http://preserveandhonor.com/contact.
Gilleland has the military in his plans after high school, with a specific eye on attending the U.S. Naval Academy. He plans on maintaining the website as long as possible. “I can definitely do it for the next couple of years,” he said. “Once I get into college, I need to see what kind of time I have. But I’d like to keep it going then, too.”