Augmented Reality Helps Pay Tribute to Deceased Veterans

Visitors to the St. Augustine National Cemetery now have access to interactive information about the lives of the service members interred there thanks to an undertaking by the University of Central Florida, Orlando.

by Colleen Jones, The St. Augustine Record / November 30, 2018
St. Augustine National Cemetery in Florida. Shutterstock

(TNS) — "I love these words: 'By strangers honored, by strangers mourned,' " said Scot French as he stood in the St. Augustine National Cemetery Thursday reading the gravestone inscription for a Dr. Charles Noyes, a 27-year-old Army surgeon interred at the site.

"In a way, we are those strangers," said French, an associate professor of history at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. "We are using data to create interactive visualizations that, at a glance, tell a story."

The effort is part of a major archiving project by UCF which just launched a website cataloguing nearly all the 1,227 grave sites at the St. Augustine National Cemetery.

Launched in 2016, the Veterans Legacy Program is funded by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs as a way to memorialize the lives of veterans and share their stories with the general public.

Faculty and students at the UCF researched and wrote biographies of the soldiers buried or memorialized at the cemetery. They used primary sources including government records, census data and newspaper accounts to discover information about veterans' lives, including their occupations, where and when they enlisted, how they were killed and other details.

There is also an "augmented reality" mobile application which allows smartphone users to hold their device up to a headstone and pull up matching background information on that specific veteran to create an interactive walking tour of cemetery. Graduate and undergraduate students also helped with the technical aspects of building the website and the app, which also include links to multimedia elements.

"It's taken dozens and dozens of students over so many months to create this," said Amelia Lyons, a UCF associate professor who is heading up the Veterans Legacy Project.

Lyons said UCF as an institution is known for being on "the leading edge" of this type of digital mapping and making that information available for public use.

"We're really making it accessible; it's not just information in dusty books," said Lyons.

St. Augustine National Cemetery was chosen as one of the subjects of their research because the veterans buried here span so many chapters of American military history, from the Seminole Wars to the Vietnam War.

In addition to St. Augustine, UCF's history department is conducting similar studies at the Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell, the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery in Lucy-le-Bocage, France, and the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery in Romagne-sous-Montfaucon, also in France.

The larger body of data will also allow researchers to broaden their observations.

"That's what we're doing in digital mapping, looking for patterns ... and you can't do that unless you lift it from the printed page," said French. "A whole new frontier of research is coming to us."

For example, Lyons pulled up a heat map that was formed from the data points showing how infectious diseases like malaria killed soldiers more often than warfare in the 19th century.

The project is also creating an interactive K-12 curriculum that can be used by teachers nationwide at a grade-appropriate level.

Among the many stories that have been uncovered at the St. Augustine National Cemetery, one mystery still remains. In the southwest corner of the graveyard, two marble headstones stand next to one another, each bearing the inscription: "Six Unknown Indians."

According to UCF professor Amy Giroux, at least nine of the interred are thought to have died at Fort Marion during the internment of Native Americans at what is now known as the Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine. Beyond that, details are scant.

Giroux still believes there may be more out there that might be gleaned by scouring digitized records.

"That," she said, "is the hope."

To access the Veterans Legacy Program and to learn more about the stories behind the veterans buried at the St. Augustine National Cemetery go online to www.vlp.cah.ucf.edu.

©2018 The St. Augustine Record, Fla. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.