Report: Remains Mishandled At Arlington Cemetery
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Army investigators have been looking into the records at Arlington National Cemetery, and they found recordkeeping so poor it raises questions about who is buried in hundreds of graves. As NPR's Scott Horsley reports, the cemetery's top two managers have been disciplined.
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SCOTT HORSLEY: Arlington National Cemetery is famous for its ritualized remembrance of the nation's war dead. But behind the choreographed funerals, beneath the manicured ground, Army investigators found dysfunctional management and antiquated recordkeeping. Army Secretary John McHugh says in at least 211 cases, gravesites were not properly documented or records and gravesites didn't match.
Mr. JOHN MCHUGH (U.S. Secretary of the Army): To the men and women that 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.
HORSLEY: The Army began investigating Arlington last November, after the online magazine Salon reported instances in which cremated remains were left in a dirt landfill and a body was found in a gravesite thought to be empty.
Inspector General Steven Whitcomb says there was no evidence of deliberate wrongdoing. In some cases, he said, gravestones might've been knocked over by a lawn mower, then not replaced. Or multiple family members might've been buried in a single site.
Mr. STEVEN WHITCOMB (Inspector General, U.S. Army): If that's not done precisely well in accordance with procedures, you may have a casket that could bleed over into another burial site.
HORSLEY: The Army may have to use X-rays or in some cases exhume caskets to sort out who's buried where. Secretary McHugh named a new director to oversee Army cemeteries and an official from the VA will serve as Arlington's temporary supervisor.
Two of the mismarked graves were in a section of the cemetery used to bury service members killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Paul�Rieckhoff, who heads the group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, says he's happy to see some accountability.
Mr. PAUL�RIECKHOFF (Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America): For us as veterans, and I think for all American, it's absolutely unacceptable that something like this would happen at our most sacred burial ground.
HORSLEY: Rieckhoff visited Arlington just last week for Memorial Day. Like Secretary McHugh, he noted the dedicated service of many of the cemetery's workers.
Mr. RIECKHOFF: But at the same time, they've got to be properly resourced. They've got to have adequate leadership. And they've got to have the right tools.
HORSLEY: Over the last decade, Arlington has spent more than $5 million on computer upgrades, but has little to show for it. The cemetery still relies on outdated paper records. Some of Arlington's problems were highlighted by a former public affairs officer, Gina Gray. Her attorney, Mark Zaid, says for too long Army superiors and even lawmakers turned a blind eye.
Mr. MARK ZAID (Attorney): Arlington Cemetery, so long as it appeared to be run smoothly on the surface with all the nice flags and trumpets blaring at funerals, no one paid any attention to all of the problems that were not only beneath the ground but also in the workplace.
HORSLEY: Arlington's deputy superintendent was place on leave yesterday. The long-time superintendent, who's about to retire, was reprimanded. Superintendent John Metzler's father ran Arlington before him. The 62-year-old Army veteran grew up on the cemetery grounds and he hopes one day to be buried there.
Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.
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