Army officials told Congress today they are doing everything possible to address and fix the problems at Arlington National Cemetery after an investigation determined that at least 211 graves may have been improperly marked or lack the necessary paperwork.
Three weeks ago, Army Secretary John McHugh disciplined the cemetery's top two officials after an Army investigation found a paperwork mess that had led to the misidentification of some of the cemetery's 330,000 graves.
Today, McHugh heard tough words from House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Missouri), who started a hearing into the confusion at the cemetery by venting his frustration at the news.
"I'm angry. Period," said Skelton, "I'm just downright angry. Arlington Cemetery's our nation's most hallowed ground. It's reserved as a final resting place of our heroic warriors. Management ineptitude and neglect has resulted in a web of errors. How in the world could this tragedy be allowed to happen?"
Skelton said he could not believe that the Army had been made aware of the cemetery's dysfunctional management during previous investigations conducted in the 1990's. The problems, he said, had been "allowed to fester for years."
McHugh shared Skelton's frustration and said, "The Army is doing and will continue to do everything necessary and possible to right these unimaginable, unacceptable wrongs." He said progress had been made in the three weeks since the problems were made public. "We're on our way. I think we have the process that will, hopefully, solve many of the problems that have been unveiled with respect to yesterday, and set us on a better path for tomorrow."
The Army Secretary said progress has been made in reviewing the 211 cases where graves may have been misidentified or there was improper recordkeeping of a burial -- for example, where a gravestone exists but the paperwork cannot be found. He said the Army is prepared possibly to use disinterment, as a last resort, to resolve discrepancies.
He said that of the 211 cases, 117 of them involved gravesites marked as occupied on cemetery maps, but for which there was no paperwork or a headstone. McHugh says 27 of those cases have been resolved and were found to be recording mistakes on site maps, meaning there were no graves at those locations.
The priority is reconciling the information for the remainder of the 211 graves, and to that end the Army intends to set up a computer database that can cross-check all the paperwork to resolve conflicts. Amazingly, record-keeping for the 330,000 remains interred at the cemetery since its opening in 1864 continues to be done mostly on paper, after a previous decade-long effort to create a computer database stumbled along.
Meanwhile, the mountain of paper continues to grow. The cemetery averages 27 funerals a day. There have been 100,000 burials at Arlington since 1990.
McHugh said the Army has received offers of assistance from private I.T. companies, which have offered to help make computer records of the 330,000 graves at the cemetery so that cross-checks can be made.