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A bugler plays taps during an Aug. 9 funeral at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va. After reports revealed mishandling of remains at the cemetery, military officials are now working to reconcile the burial records of the 330,000 people laid to rest there.
For years, Arlington National Cemetery has been defined by honor. Presidents are buried there. The crew of the space shuttle Challenger. And thousands of men and women who served in the military.
But Barbara Tye doesn't have the same sense of honor she once had. After her family had her little brother, Army Staff Sgt. Michael Somers, disinterred she found out he had been buried in the wrong place.
After reports last year revealed mishandling of remains at the cemetery, military officials are now working to reconcile the burial records of the 330,000 people laid to rest there. The cemetery faces a joint criminal probe by the Army and the FBI. Congress has also ordered an accounting by the end of the year.
Cemetery officials recently unveiled changes they have made so far — ones they hope will help regain some of the trust they lost. But two families who questioned the burial of their loved ones say they aren't sure that's possible.
Somers' family hadn't spoken out until now, so as not to disgrace the Army he loved.
"They dug one grave to the left of him and that was an empty gravesite," says Tye, his sister. "Because when they dug up his gravesite, it was the wife of a colonel. So then they dug one grave to the right of him and discovered his casket and the body of another wife of an unknown service member."
The sun rises over Section 15 at Arlington National Cemetery as soldiers from the Army Old Guard photograph headstones on Aug. 24. Their work is part of a task force to photograph and catalog nearly 220,000 grave markers and the columbarium niches of more than 43,000 sets of cremated remains at Arlington.
The sun rises over Section 15 at Arlington National Cemetery as soldiers from the Army Old Guard photograph headstones on Aug. 24. Their work is part of a task force to photograph and catalog nearly 220,000 grave markers and the columbarium niches of more than 43,000 sets of cremated remains at Arlington. Cliff Owen/AP
Tye says she'll never look at the graves at Arlington the same way.
The cemetery's staff is working hard to restore the trust of the families — and the nation.
An accountability task force is locating graves, documenting the information on the grave markers, then matching it with digitized paper records and computer databases to get an accurate accounting.
"There's almost 220,000 markers and another 43,000-some columbarium niches we had to go out and physically count," says Army Col. John Schrader, co-chairman of the task force.
Army troops armed with iPhones have been out taking pictures of the graves.
Army Lt. Col. Jamie Wilmeth explains that the pictures are then fed into a system that helps check if the information on the headstones is correct.
"We're going to take all of these that have the mistakes on them and we're going to go through the files — whether they're hard files here at the cemetery ... different databases, VA databases, personnel databases — and we will determine what the truth is," he says.
Kathryn Condon, executive director of the Army National Cemeteries Program, took over at Arlington after the previous administrators were forced out in the wake of the 2010 Army inspector general report.
"If we find a discrepancy, we will immediately work with the next of kin," she says.
Condon and her staff dealt with Somers' case, but she says errors like this are rare because most of the time families are present when their loved ones are buried. Inclement weather prevented that for the Somers family.
"Hopefully ... we don't have many of those discrepancies left, but you have my promise that if we do we will do everything to bring the veteran and their loved ones to closure," she says.
NPR asked repeatedly how the cemetery can be sure the original paperwork isn't wrong. Condon says if all the records check out — and match the headstone — the cemetery presumes the right person is under that headstone.
Courtesy of Scott Warner
Marine Pvt. Heath Warner was 19 when he was killed in Iraq in 2006. Warner's father had his body disinterred to confirm that he was buried in the right place.
But Tye, Somers' sister, says that presumption is a slap in the face. "They told us my brother's paperwork was in order [and] he was where he was supposed to be," she says. "But he wasn't."
Condon says the cemetery won't know how many discrepancies there are until the task force finishes its work.
But Scott Warner says he doesn't think Arlington can ever restore his trust. Warner had his son, Marine Pvt. Heath Warner, disinterred to confirm that he was buried in the right place. He was.
"I don't think ... there's anything they'll ever be able to do for us to take that pain and that suffering that we went through going through this process," he says.
Condon says the cemetery will be ready to make its mandated report to Congress — accounting for every single person buried there — in December.