WASHINGTON (Army News Service, Nov. 1, 2013) -- Over the past two years, the time it takes to place a headstone at Arlington National Cemetery, Va., has been reduced from as many as 180 days to an average of just 45 days, said the executive director of the Army National Cemeteries Program.

Patrick K. Hallinan, along with Glenn Powers, deputy under secretary for Field Programs, National Cemetery Administration, testified Oct. 30, at a hearing before the House Veterans Affairs Committee, subcommittee on disability assistance and memorial affairs.

Regarding the headstones, Hallinan elaborated, saying that in March, Arlington National Cemetery, or ANC, began directly ordering them from Department of Veterans Affairs contractors. This, he said, resulted in a more "timely and accurate" ordering process.

Prior to conducting a funeral service, cemetery representatives work with the family and primary next-of-kin to create a proposed headstone using an automated headstone designer tool which produces a template, he explained.

After the template is agreed upon, ANC waits two weeks to allow family members the opportunity to change the terms of endearment or other items of personal preference on the headstone, he continued.

Other improvements have taken place just in the past few months, Hallinan said.

ANC staff "created and institutionalized industry-leading standards with auditable business practices and implemented stringent chain-of-custody controls and multiple points of redundancy to ensure accountability and zero-defect tolerance," he said.

In August, Hallinan approved the 2013 ANC Master Plan, which will standardize training, inspection and best business practices not only at ANC, but also across all 40 Army cemeteries nationwide. The plan takes effect by the end of 2013.

The plan also addresses repairing and replacing aging infrastructure and completing expansion projects.

Regarding expansion projects, last year, construction was completed on a columbarium, which added 20,296 burial niches for cremated remains. The expansion means the cemetery will now be able to accept remains at the columbarium until 2024, he said.

This year, planning was completed for the Millennium Project on the north side of ANC, a process that "balances new cemetery space with preserving the natural beauty and historic nature into the design," he said.

A construction contract was issued in September and work will commence shortly, he said. When construction is completed, it will add more than 27,000 new burial opportunities.

On the south side, ANC is planning another expansion project on land formerly occupied by the Navy Annex and Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps. Planning for that, he said, is in the early stages, even as demolition and debris removal at the Navy Annex continues.

The two big expansion projects will add enough burial spaces to last through the mid-2050s, he said.

The National Cemetery Administration, or NCA, has ambitious expansion plans outside of those at Arlington National Cemetery. It is in the midst of the largest expansion since the Civil War, said Powers.

"Before the end of this decade, NCA will open 18 new facilities, offering burial options to more than 680,000 currently unserved veterans, [and] bringing us closer to the targeted 95 percent options for all veterans within 75 miles of their home," Powers said.

Powers added that NCA is hiring mostly veterans in its workforce and that it even has an outreach program to hire homeless veterans.

The pace and request for burials at ANC and other Army-run cemeteries "remains at an all-time high and our workforce is meeting that challenge," Hallinan added.

Infrastructure improvements are also being addressed at ANC.

Over the last few years ANC maintenance crews have been repairing water lines, roadways, flagstones, and heating and cooling systems for the various structures, Hallinan said. About $50 million worth of those repairs need to be made in the near-term before it is at an adequate level.

Hallinan testified regarding several other improvements at ANC, all within the last 15 months.

By the summer of 2012, a system using geospatial mapping was in place whereby all remains and the associated sites and burial records were digitally photographed and their locations cataloged, he continued.

Over the past year, ANC launched its "ANC Explorer" app, which enables visitors to more efficiently explore the cemetery and locate gravesites, events and other points of interest. An updated version of the app will be launched shortly, he added.

On Oct. 20, ANC partnered with Google, which entered the cemetery with its Street View cameras. Once the information is published, anyone with a computer or smartphone will be able to take a virtual tour of the cemetery and zoom in with 360-degree views, he said.

Hallinan also affirmed his commitment to Gold Star families, promising to keep them abreast of news and changes to ANC. He said ANC will host Gold Star family meetings twice a year.

In conclusion, Hallinan assured that "every burial at ANC will be conducted with the honor and dignity service members have earned and their families will be treated with respect and compassion."

(For more ARNEWS stories, visit www.army.mil/ARNEWS, or Facebook at www.facebook.com/ArmyNewsService)