Bethany Hall is flying over 4,000 miles from Rutherford County to Hawaii to help create a battlefield and remains database for the U.S. Department of Defense’s POW/MIA Accounting Agency.
Hall will take an eight-month leave of absence from her Geographic Information Systems Coordinator job at the county’s Consolidated Utilities District from her departure date during the first week of May.
She said she found out about the project last spring through an advertisement for a research grant. She submitted her grant application and learned that she was selected to be a field coordinator last July.
“With COVID, they haven’t allowed anybody to come on to the islands,” said Hall, who’s been working remotely on the project since December.
“They’ll call me about it once every four or five weeks and say, ‘Hey, try to learn this new software package and can’t wait ‘til you get here.’ ”
She’ll be working from the agency’s Pearl Harbor office. She’ll learn how to create a database that will catalogue battlefields and remains for researchers in the field to access.
She plans to help integrate some of the mobile collection methods used at the county’s CUD in Hawaii to make the web-based data available to archaeologists, historians and forensic scientists in real time.
“Last year, when the pandemic hit, we were kind of on edge pushing everything into the mobile platform where it would be, I guess, more self-sufficient,” said Hall. “We just kind of went, ‘It’s now or never.’ So, we took the plunge, and we went fully mobile.”
Hall helps to use drones to gather utility information in the county. Recently she helped to determine the status of sinkholes in the Blackman community. The drone typically flies between 200 and 400 feet high, according to Hall, who acknowledged the importance of being aware of other air traffic in the skies.
“That drone’s really tiny once it gets up in the air,” she said. “It’s hard to see it at times.”
Hall has been working with the CUD for about two and a half years but has worked in government agencies on and off for the last 20. She started her career as an engineer assistant with Murfreesboro Electric, where she would manually map the number of service poles in the city for annual inventory purposes.
“If we didn’t get the right number, we’d have to go out and ride around the city to try and figure out where we were missing poles,” said Hall. When a friend introduced her to the ArcGIS program at city hall, there was no looking back.
“It just spit out the numbers, and I was like, ‘Sold!’ ” said Hall. “Sign me up.”
Project becomes personal
Her interest in the historical element of the Department of Defense project hits closer to home with a family discovery.
Hall spent a lot of time around her grandparents growing up. When a middle school assignment on World War II came up, she was met with a hasty warning from her grandfather.
“I was in the living room, mouthing off as a youngster. He kind of grabbed me by my shirt collar and he was like, ‘You don’t ever talk about World War II. It upsets your grandmother,’ ” Hall said.
Little did she know that that her great-uncle, John Papineau (her grandmother’s brother), had fought and died in World War II. Years later, after her grandmother had suffered a series of strokes, she requested that Hall look into what happened to him.
A records request was submitted, but Hall’s grandmother had passed away two weeks before an answer was received.
Papineau had enlisted in the Marine Corps, when his brother Bob was rejected from enlistment for having flat feet. In 1942, Papineau and five friends were sent from Plymouth, Mich., to San Diego, Calif., before being split up into different divisions of the Marines.
“He was a replacement during the Cape Gloucester-New Britain campaign that happened in some tiny, little speck of islands in the Pacific,” said Hall.
Papineau was also part of the invasion force at the Battle of Peleliu, located within a chain of islands now known as the Republic of Palau.
“This battle was just horrendous,” said Hall, of the battle that led up to Iwo Jima and Okinawa, “It was one of the really first tough beach operations that the Marines had to encounter, heavily fortified and entrenched Japanese forces.”
Papineau was killed in Okinawa about eight weeks before the end of the war, according to Hall.
This knowledge sparked her interest in following in his footsteps from a geographical standpoint. Hall went on a study trip with Derek Frisby, an MTSU history professor and veteran, to Peleliu in 2009 as she was working to complete a master’s degree in public history.
She put those plans on pause for a few years before returning to MTSU to complete a liberal arts master’s program. Hall’s capstone research project involved tracking down the 16 soldiers from MTSU who had been drafted and killed in the Vietnam War. Her goal was to compile that data into a digital webmap.
“So far, we’ve been able to document every one of the casualty locations that we’ve researched,” said Hall, who learned how to read the military map grid system under Frisby’s guidance. “It’s like an alphabet soup of numbers and letters, and so you have to take that and create a longitude and latitude out of it.”
She hopes the skills learned in Hawaii will allow her and the other GIS analysts and editors at the CUD to form a “seamless” data hub in Murfreesboro that will allow customers to view construction projects in town and property developers to submit their projects into the map for feedback.
Above all, she wants to give other military families something her grandmother never got to receive.
“I think the biggest thing I’m looking forward to is just being able to help kind of tie all this data together, and hopefully, it’s going to give one family that closure,” said Hall.