Thursday, July 3, 2008

Bowie man logs nearly 700,000 photos of veterans’ graves for Web site

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Bryan Haynes⁄The Star
Veteran Gary Nelson of Bowie photographs war graves for Findagrave.com’s International Wargraves Photography Project. He has shot photographs of almost 700,000 graves around the world.
Not everyone who sees Gary Nelson’s photography may find the images uplifting, but he believes they are necessary to remind people of the cost of war. Over the last three years he has taken nearly 700,000 photos of veterans’ graves or monuments for the Web sitewww.findagrave.com.

Travelling the world on his own dime, the Bowie resident has visited more than 250 cemeteries to photograph the graves of soldiers from all over the world who fought in many wars. For the last several years the images he has collected have been posted on Findagrave.com’s International Wargraves Photography Project, but now Nelson, 56, plans to get his own Web site, www.thefallenremembered.org, up and running by the end of the year.

Nelson, a Vietnam War veteran and now a staff sergeant in the 113th Wing of the District of Columbia Air National Guard out of Andrew’s Air Force Base, has worked as an Air Guard historian since 1996. But he said his passion for military history far precedes that.

He was first intrigued by the World War I Battle of the Somme, in which 19,000 British soldiers were killed in one day. He began researching the battle and in the process started taking photos of gravesites for several online war memorial projects.

Several of the sites, including the Maple Leaf Legacy Project and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, collect the images of veterans or their graves from Canada or the Commonwealth nations respectively, but Nelson wanted to create a tribute to all who fought.

‘‘With men and women in uniform, even if you are at conflict [with one another] there is a certain bonding,” Nelson said. ‘‘Even with the North Vietnamese I feel we are all sergeants at arms.”

Nelson has taken the most photos in France and Belgium but plans to start work on Arlington National Cemetery this year. Able to capture approximately 5,000 graves in several hours on a ‘‘good day,” Nelson said photography is the easy part. It is uploading and archiving the images that is the most time consuming. Surveying a list of archived information on his computer, Nelson estimates he is about 40,000 names behind.

Some Web sites charge money to access information but Nelson said it is important to keep his own Web site free.

The fact images are free pleased Richard Beckwell, spokesman for Bowie’s American Legion Post 66– Disney-Bell.

‘‘I’ve seen a lot of organizations go out and do a project like this for their own benefit or to build a monument,” Beckwell said. ‘‘I have no problem at all whatsoever so long as it is not for profit.”

Though not monetarily compensated, Nelson said the project is very rewarding.

‘‘I’ll probably do this until I die,” he said.

He receives about 20 requests for photos a week and recalled the response he got from a recent trip to Fort Richardson, Alaska. Several weeks after posting a photo a woman thanked him for providing her with the one morsel of information she had about her father.

‘‘Her mother and father had a bitter divorce and the mother threw out everything and burned everything related to the father,” Nelson said.

E-mail Andrea Noble at anoble@gazette.net.