'Downright Angry': House Panel Grills Army Chief on Arlington Cemetery Mistakes

Army Secretary McHugh promised the service was working quickly to fix problems.

ByLuis Martinez
June 30, 2010, 4:49 PM

WASHINGTON, June 30, 2010 -- 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.

Military Slow to Build Electronic Database for Arlington Graves

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.

Most of the 211 cases were found in three sections of the cemetery, numbered 59, 65 and 66, which do not see many current burials. Two headstones were also found to have been mismatched in section 60, which is reserved for the fallen from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. That error was quickly corrected.

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 said "the investigating officers did not review additional burial maps because testimony established that map inaccuracies were a systemic problem."

In releasing the Army's investigative report three weeks ago, McHugh apologized for the bad recordkeeping. "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 had asked the Army's Inspector General to review the management at Arlington, building on 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.

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.

Army Chief McHugh Pledges Service Will Fix Problems

At a Pentagon briefing three weeks ago, McHugh announced he was replacing cemetery superintendent John Metzler and placing his deputy, Thurman Higgenbotham, on administrative leave while some of his actions are investigated.

Metzler has been cemetery superintendent for 19 years and had previously announced he would retire 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 was suspended from his duties as the number-two official at the cemetery. He 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.

McHugh said the Army should remain in control of operations at Arlington, rejecting suggestions that control be shifted to the National Cemetery Administration. "These problems were committed under the watch of the Army, and it's the Army's responsibility going forward," McHugh said, "I'm not sure the fairer thing to do is burden others because of the shortcomings of the United States Army."

According to McHugh, an Army call center has received 867 calls from family members concerned about the well-being of their loved ones' graves. 169 of those cases have been resolved.

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