'Everyone in death is equal'

VA's Durocher finds IT can help veterans and their families ? even in death

National Cemetery Administration

A faceless bureaucrat to most Americans, Mark Durocher represents an important

component of the nation's pledge to make sure America's soldiers have the

dignity and respect they deserve in their final resting places.

Durocher oversees the information systems for the 119 national cemeteries

run by the Department of Veterans Affairs. His job is to make sure those

cemeteries — where soldiers as far back as the Revolutionary War are buried — operate smoothly and efficiently.

"When I got here, we tried to start fresh. I didn't stare at someone's

mistakes," he said. "It became obvious that our central need for business

automation revolved around interment."

Since 1984, Durocher, a Vietnam veteran, has been working with the VA's

National Cemetery Administration to create sophisticated databases that

will smooth the way for the bereaved to bury their loved ones without hassles.

His priority became creating a system that could interact with other

VA databases to check information ranging from burial eligibility to service

dates to making sure the information on a headstone was correct. The new

system replaced carbon-copy forms filled out on typewriters and mailed to

VA regional offices.

And it was a good thing he did because the job is getting bigger.

"Right now, 600,000 vets are passing away each year. And our goal has

been to get a national cemetery within 75 miles of every veteran," Durocher

said.

The VA's cemeteries include its World War II cemetery — the National

Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, also known as the Punchbowl, located in

the crater of an extinct volcano overlooking Waikiki, Honolulu and Pearl

Harbor. (The nation's most famous cemetery, Arlington National Cemetery,

Arlington, Va., is run by the Army).

In the last two years, the VA has opened five new cemeteries — outside

Chicago, near Dallas, in Cleveland, in Seattle and in Albany, N.Y. And the

workload is increasing. By 2008, the number of eligible deceased veterans

is expected to rise to about 620,000 annually, comprising mostly veterans

from World War II and the Korean War, according to Durocher.

Managing the systems will continue to be a challenge. The VA is facing

the same problem as other government agencies — hackers attack the system

at least once a month. "Security is always an issue for us," he said.

In Durocher's line of work, personal service is essential. In addition

to using databases to confirm a veteran's eligibility to be buried at a

national cemetery, the National Cemetery Administration is providing other

computer-enhanced systems to provide information to loved ones.

"Many of our visitors come on the weekends," Durocher said. "And because

of budget cuts, most of our cemeteries don't have people working then."

Kiosks have been placed in 24 cemeteries to help people locate gravesites.

Each kiosk resembles an ATM with a touch screen that helps people look up

a person's record and provides a map to find a grave. Eventually, all 119

cemeteries will have the ability to tap into a database and locate a grave.

Nevertheless, most of the work is still done at headquarters in Washington,

D.C., where Durocher, with a small staff and a $5 million yearly budget,

makes sure a veteran is properly buried, that his family members are eligible

for burial, too, and that the proper paperwork is completed and the correct

information is on the headstone.

No one is given special treatment, he said — not prisoners of war or

members of Congress or officers. In fact, separate sections for officers

and enlisted men were phased out this century.

"Everyone in death is equal at our cemeteries," Durocher said — and

in a computer database as well.

MORE INFO

Title: Director of Information Systems for the National Cemetery Administration.

Age: 55

Background: He is a Vietnam War veteran and a graduate of the University

of Maryland. He has worked for the Department of Veterans Affairs since

1984, when it was in its infancy and before computers were part of the

system.

Responsibilities: He operates the information technology system for

119 federal cemeteries, including a database that keeps track of all information

relating to interment.

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