June 10, 2010 -- The Army has announced major leadership changes at Arlington National Cemetery after an investigation determined that at least 211 graves may have been improperly marked or lack the necessary paperwork.
Army Secretary John McHugh announced at a Pentagon briefing today that he was replacing cemetery superintendent John Metzler and placing his deputy, Thurman Higgenbotham, on administrative leave while some of his actions are investigated.
The actions result from an investigation conducted by the Army's Inspector General to review allegations of mismanagement by the cemetery's staff.
McHugh said as many as 211 cases will have to be reviewed 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. Decisions will be made in the future as to how those cases will be resolved, either by disinterment or the use of ground-penetrating radar.
Amazingly, record-keeping for the 330,000 remains interred at the cemetery since its opening in 1864 continues to be done mostly on paper as a decade-long effort to create a computer database has stumbled along.
The mountain of paper continues to grow. The cemetery averages 27 funerals a day. There have been 100,000 burials at Arlington since 1990.
Most of the cases were found in three sections of the cemetery, numbered 59, 65 and 66, which do not see many current burials. However, it was revealed today that two headstones had been mismatched in section 60, the section reserved for the fallen from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The mistakes may be more extensive -- the errors in the three sections were found only because the military was doing a tree survey in them. The Inspector General's report says, "the investigating officers did not review additional burial maps because testimony established that map inaccuracies were a systemic problem."
McHugh promised the Army would rectify the situation.
"There is simply no excuse and on behalf of the U.S. Army, and on behalf of myself, I deeply apologize to the families of the honored fallen resting in that hallowed ground who may now question the care for their loved ones," he said.
Last November, McHugh asked the Army's Inspector General to review the management at Arlington, building upon a series of articles by Salon.com in 2009 that detailed how mistaken burials may have taken place over the years. Salon has since reported on five incidents of misplaced remains.
In May 2003, cemetery workers preparing to bury a Navy captain at what they thought was an empty grave found a set of remains already there. In January 2008, gravediggers interred the urn containing the cremated remains of an Air Force master sergeant atop those of an unrelated staff sergeant. The mistake was not discovered until four months later, when the staff sergeant's widow discovered the master sergeant's headstone above her husband's grave.
Just this week Salon reported the case of another misplaced urn that was discovered in a cemetery landfill.
According to the Army IG report, 117 gravesites were marked as occupied on cemetery maps, but none of these gravesites had a headstone or a burial card in the paperwork. 94 gravesites were marked as unoccupied, but each had a headstone and a burial card. Some gravesites were not reflected on burial maps.
Metzler has been cemetery superintendent for 19 years and had previously announced his retirement in early July. He received a letter of reprimand that effectively replaced him as superintendent, but he will continue to work in a lesser job at the cemetery until his retirement date.
Higginbotham has been suspended from his duties as the number-two official at the cemetery while the Army's Criminal Investigative Command investigates allegations that he hacked the e-mail of the cemetery's public affairs officer. He is also alleged to have lied under oath as that investigation progressed.
Higginbotham has worked at Arlington much of his adult life, having started as a security guard at the cemetery. His handling of the effort to create a computer database to update the cemetery's records had come under fire from former staffers.
Today Secretary McHugh said, "To to the men and women who wear the uniform of the United States, to all citizens of this great nation, who believe as I do that Arlington National Cemetery is the most sacred place on this planet, the Army owes better. "