Success stories

Connecting Families to Build a Unique Digital Veteran Memorial

Veterans honored on online Memorial site
subscribers targeted by awareness campaign
open rates
participant submissions
The Veterans Legacy Memorial (VLM), the only online memorial that honors over 4.4 million veterans with an interactive memorial page for each veteran, launched in 2019 with further plans to develop into an interactive website in 2020 as a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions on visiting national cemeteries. In order to encourage VLM users to submit tributes in a variety of formats, the National Cemetery Administration (NCA) targeted several audiences with awareness campaigns using govDelivery to encourage participation from survivors, next of kin, veteran and other service organizations, and other end-of-life industry partners.
“The interactivity that a digital memorial site brings provides more permanence to these stories, being able to access them from anywhere and allows survivors and friends to contribute to their veteran’s memorial pages.”
James LaPaglia

Managing Growth, Respect and Pandemic Impacts

Honoring those who have served defending their country has been in the lifeblood of the United States since its founding. That tradition of memorializing veterans and those who have made the ultimate sacrifice in their service continues today, with numerous memorials and national cemeteries providing opportunities for respectful reflection not only for families of veterans, but for all Americans.

The NCA is part of the U.S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs (VA) and oversees 155 national cemeteries and 34 soldiers’ lots and monument sites in 42 states and Puerto Rico. NCA also funds 121 state, tribal, and territory veterans cemeteries. More than 4 million Americans, including veterans of every war and conflict, are buried in the these cemeteries. The NCA’s mission honoring veterans and eligible family members with final resting places in national shrines and with lasting tributes that commemorate their service and sacrifice can be seen in the recent development of the Veterans Legacy Memorial (VLM). This online memorial honors over 4.4 million veterans with individual memorial pages.

The creation of the VLM came from an effort to use technology in a way to make it easier for veterans to be honored by those who could not travel to a national cemetery.

“NCA was trying to find a way to have the legacies of all these millions of veterans not be lost,” said James LaPaglia, NCA Digital Services Chief. “We don’t want veterans to pass away and then have no one talk about their stories anymore. We wanted their stories and their memories to stay alive. And we wanted to do it in a digital, innovative fashion.”

“The interactivity that a digital memorial site brings,” continued LaPaglia, “provides more permanence to these stories, being able to access them from anywhere and allows survivors and friends to contribute to their veteran’s memorial pages.”

Launched in 2019, the VLM’s first phase focused on taking existing databases and creating individual memorials for veterans with a plan to increase interactivity in a second phase.

“We originally had a database of 3.4 million records, some of them dating back to the Revolutionary War,” said Megha Chokshi, Senior Vice President at Gov CIO, the company that developed the VLM site for NCA. “There was only so much that you could do in terms of cleansing the data and being super careful before we could invite people in and have to moderate what things were being added to these memorial pages.”

The importance of accurate information would also impact another aspect of the VLM: it’s use as a research tool.

“From the start, the future vision was that this would end up also being as a research tool,” said Chokshi. “Teachers and students, researchers, anytime that they want to come in and take a look at veterans from any war. They could do that.”

“So it was very important that, when we update veteran information, we do it with due diligence” she continued. “And a lot of that happens because families are contacting VLM to correct information on their veteran’s page that may not be accurate.”

However, shortly after the site was launched, NCA faced a new challenge that was being dealt with at all levels of government: Closures related to the COVID pandemic and the need to create more interactive digital experiences. While LaPaglia said that the original plan to increase digital interactivity originally targeted 2020 dates, the impact on national cemetery closures put a new emphasis on the work being done with the VLM.

“We just couldn’t gather in large numbers when COVID hit,” he said. “When families wanted to inter their loved ones, we were restricting the number of family members that could even come to the cemetery. We were not having the traditional services with the 21-gun salute, the flag, and everything else. So we wanted a way for people to remotely participate in honoring their Veterans, including Memorial Day that year.”

As a result, the VLM became a virtual cemetery during COVID, LaPaglia said, creating a hub where people could gather to remember those who passed, including those who passed during the pandemic. With both the uptick in interest, and the need to properly manage submissions to the VLM website team, LaPaglia needed a way to effectively communicate and engage with families to increase both awareness of the VLM and how they could participate.


Increasing Connections with Targeted Messaging

As NCA started to add more VA and non-VA cemeteries to the VLM project, they leveraged govDelivery for awareness campaigns. These campaigns helped deliver the key messages of what VLM offered families, the digitally accessible environment it provided, and how the capabilities VLM provided could allow families, friends, and visitors to upload content to a Veteran’s memorial page, beyond the walls of the physical VA national cemeteries.

While COVID impacted the traditional Memorial Day and Veterans Day remembrances that take place around the country, NCA’s campaigns seized upon these important times of year in both 2020 and 2021 to not only underscore the importance to the VLM project but how it addressed the COVID-19 impact. Bulletins sent through govDelivery were part of a broad communications plan that included blog posts, media relations, and social media messaging.

“We were ready, after a year of doing static tributes, to open the door to other content types that we had been planning, like photographs and documents, and word cloud generation,” said LaPaglia. “And the pandemic — and its restrictions — was a big driver to getting that interactivity across the finish line. So with a specific target for Memorial Day and Veterans Day, we needed govDelivery to really drive the traffic to make that happen.”


Building Audiences and Relationships

NCA’s outreach to families regarding the VLM project had immediate impact. Using govDelivery reached over 200,000 subscribers through the course of the campaign with email bulletins that saw open rates reaching nearly 50% and click rates that regularly outpaced averages for the Federal market.

“We saw pretty good numbers and could see from the bounce rates that people were forwarding messages on to other people,” said LaPaglia. “The use of govDelivery noticeably caused an uptick in participation and we could see people were clicking through from the govDelivery messages to VLM.”

But more than the analytics reported, LaPaglia was impressed by the anecdotal responses that the campaign created, reflected on the VLM website.

“We saw that on at least one occasion, a family member submitting a Tribute for a veteran’s page and it said ‘I got an email from NCA about VLM and so I came and found my dad,’” he said. “So that’s the kind of thing that goes beyond the numbers and shows the results firsthand.”

That personal impact also extended beyond the growth of the memorial pages, said LaPaglia, as the increase of awareness and engagement with the VLM provided a respectful way to continue Memorial Day and Veterans Day remembrances during the pandemic lockdown.

To date, said LaPaglia, more than 40,000 content engagements have been posted to Veteran pages, and each submission is moderated by a team of government and consultants to ensure submissions appropriately honor veterans and are free of advertising, hate speech, and personal identifiable information.

The future for VLM, though, will continue to grow and broaden its reach, according to LaPaglia. As NCA reaches out to more cemeteries, some may have digitized databases while others may use more outdated ways to manage information about who is buried.

“Some cemeteries may still use index cards or some other way of keeping track,” said Chokshi. “So we can only run APIs on so much information to make sure data is accurate. We’re going to have to develop a more manual way for veteran survivors to help us create a page for the veteran.

Having a positive relationship with families, ancestors, and others connected to veterans will continue to be key in the growth of the VLM project. That means effective engagement and continued awareness of their efforts; something that LaPaglia knows govDelivery will continue to help achieve.

“Veterans who were cremated and their remains are sitting on a shelf somewhere in someone’s house, their cremains were spread elsewhere, or a veteran who was buried at sea. We’re trying to think about all those iterations because we want to make sure we honor those veterans,” said LaPaglia. “How are we going to do it in a way that is that has the correct information so that the page can be generated? That’s the endgame for VLM: A page for every veteran.”

With the outpouring of emotions from VLM users – grief, laughter, memories, historical facts, and more – the power of engagement and communication combine and stand to contribute to a unique storytelling about those patriots we’ve loved and lost for years to come.

Discover More Success Stories


Ready to deliver exceptional outcomes?

Book a demo