Nearly a year after the country was horrified to learn of major mistakes at Arlington National Cemetery, including mismarked graves and misplaced remains, members of Congress are asking whom to hold to account.
Bill Koch wants answers too. Koch, a retired Air Force Colonel whose wife, Jean, is buried at Arlington, learned he had been visiting the wrong grave for more than 4 years. He told a House committee today that the former managers at the nation's premier cemetery for its war dead "should be ashamed."
"There is a lot more than one unknown soldier," at Arlington, Koch said. That's how badly he said the cemetery has been managed.
The Army admits 18 gravesites have been mismarked or left unmarked. Since last June when the scandal became known, the Army says it has examined 22,000 gravesites. There are more than 300,000 graves at Arlington. To complete the accounting of all graves, which must be completed by the end of the year, will cost $4.3 million, according to the Army.
The Secretary of Army did not appear at Thursday's hearing, which frustrated the chairman of the subcommittee, Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va. He said the Army's effort to fix the problems at Arlington has been "unsatisfactory and is in no way commensurate with the service and sacrifice of our fallen warriors."
"Our expectation is that each and every family affected by this scandal will have their issues addressed, and hopefully, their faith restored as a result of our work here today," Wittman said at the start of the hearing.
When word of the mistakes made news last June, Bill Koch decided to call Arlington to make sure the grave he had been visiting was indeed his wife's. He was told there was nothing to worry about. But a second phone call alerted him that there was a problem. It turned out his wife was actually buried in the grave next to the one he had visited. Her remains were moved, and a new headstone was put in place.
Former Arlington National Cemetery superintendent John Meltzer and his deputy Thurman Higgenbotham were criticized roundly by Col. Koch, who said the two men "got a slap on the wrist." He added, "Once they retired it was as if this whole incident never occurred."
Members of Congress accused the two former Arlington managers of squandering millions of dollars in an effort to digitize the cemetery's paper records. The Secretary of the Army admitted, "We expect to find more paperwork errors."
The army says it is frustrated it couldn't do more about the two men. Karl Schneidner, a Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army, said when the two men retired, the Army's jurisdiction over them "evaporated."
The new Executive Director at Arlington, Kathryn Condon, told the committee that when she took over last June it as if she "moved into a house without a foundation."
"Now we are moving to do accountability," she said.
Republican Mike Coffman of Colorado wasn't buying it. He called the Arlington Cemetery leadership and its staff "rotten to its core. A culture of incompetence if not a culture of corruption." He wondered if the new leadership is up to the job.
"You don't get it," he said. "We need to honor these veterans."
The new leadership defended the staff, saying in the past there was "no guidance, no direction, no training" of the staff at the cemetery.
Rep. Wittman wondered whether the Army's Inspector General is taking Congress' concerns seriously since he did not attend the hearing.
"Our nation's heroes deserve better," Wittman said. "Today, this committee is demanding better."