Hundreds Of Bodies Misplaced at Arlington National Cemetery

A seven-month long Army investigation has revealed a disturbing degree of mismanagement at Arlington National Cemetery including misplaced remains, mislabeled graves and one case of bodies buried on top of one another. Section 27, which holds the remains of thousands of civil war troops including African Americans who served for the Unions and thousands of freed slaves, may have sustained the worst damage. Host Michel Martin speaks with Mark Benjamin who has been reporting on the troubles of Arlington Cemetery for the online publication Salon. Benjamin’s stories are credited with forcing the Army's investigation.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Later in the program, we will head to Puerto Rico, where a strike has kept more than 60,000 university students out of class for nearly two months. It's the students who are on strike, and many in the faculty and community support them -or so they tell us. We'll try to find out more in just a few minutes.

But first, we turn to an issue that is sparking hurt and anger close to our headquarters here in Washington, D.C. It's that national symbol of sacrifice and honor, Arlington National Cemetery. An awesome 300,000 of the nation's fallen are buried at Arlington. And with two wars still being fought, there are some dozens of funerals there every week. Many consider it sacred ground, certainly worthy of care at the highest level.

But a seven-month Army investigation has shown a disturbing degree of mismanagement at Arlington, mismanagement that one reporter says may have resulted in thousands of remains being incorrectly identified or misplaced.

Just today, the Washington Post reports that one of their reporters found a number of mud-caked headstones lining the banks of a small stream at Arlington. And officials there, when they contacted them, did not know those headstones were there or why they were there or to whom they belonged.

We've called Mark Benjamin, who's been reporting on the troubles at Arlington Cemetery for the online publication Salon.com. His stories are credited with forcing the Army's investigation. He found especially troubling conditions at Section 27. That's an area that holds the remains of thousands of Civil War troops, including African-Americans who served in the Union Army, and the remains of thousands of freed, enslaved Americans.

Mark Benjamin's here with us now, welcome. Thanks for joining us.

Mr. MARK BENJAMIN (Reporter, Salon.com): Thank you very much for having me.

MARTIN: I do want to point that the House Armed Services Committee chairman, Ike Skelton, announced an investigation saying that: It breaks my heart to learn about mismarked gravesites, mishandling of remains, missing documentation, and failures to notify next of kin. So, what is your sense of the scope of the problem there, based on your reporting?

Mr. BENJAMIN: The scope is potentially massive, and here's why. In the Army investigation, they looked at the paperwork for three sections of the cemetery. And what that means is about 15,000 graves. When they looked at that paperwork, they found 211 potential burial problems. In other words, you know, the paperwork says, you know, somebody's under the ground there, but the headstone doesn't match.

Here's the problem: There are 330,000 graves at Arlington. They found 211 potential problems after looking at just 15,000. That's problem one. Problem two: Each one of those burial problems has a domino effect, and here's why. You go out, you dig in the ground, paperwork shows a problem. Headstone says Joe Snuffy(ph), you dig down, but the casket is Joe Sixpack(ph), OK? There's a label on each casket. Well, when you dig up Joe Sixpack, his headstone's over here out in the right 10 feet. Uh-oh, now you have to dig down and find out who's in that grave - and so on and so on.

So, each one of those 211 burial problems potentially could increase in a domino effect. So we're talking about certainly hundreds but potentially thousands, many thousands of burial problems.

MARTIN: Why would this be? It's puzzling when if you have any familiarity at all with the care and attention to detail that we are accustomed to believing the services employ to care for the remains of the fallen. I mean, if you've seen any of the ceremonies, the return ceremonies at all, there seems to be so, how could this have happened?

Mr. BENJAMIN: Everything is computerized today. So in other words, all the grave locations are tracked by satellite. It's essentially very, very difficult to make a mistake. What has happened at Arlington National Cemetery is over the past 10 years - and the estimates on how much they've spent differ somewhere between five and $15 million they had spent that money on a bunch of shady contractors who are very, very close to the top management of the cemetery, and those contractors have produced basically nothing.

What does that mean? That means that 30 burials a day, they keep track of everything on little, tiny pieces of paper. Little tiny pieces of paper go missing. They are burying people and keeping track of records at Arlington National Cemetery the same way that they did in the late 1800s.

MARTIN: And speaking of the late 1800s, you've done some particular reporting on Section 27. Tell us about the significance of Section 27.

Mr. BENJAMIN: Section 27 is an amazing place. It is the most historical section of the cemetery and holds the oldest graves there. It includes the individuals who lived in what was called Freedman's Village, it - freed slaves who had lived in that area. We've also got U.S. colored troops there that performed - in the Civil War, including some Medal of Honor recipients. And there's about 5,000 graves there, in that particular area.

MARTIN: In fact, you noted in your reporting that years ago, it had fallen into disrepair. And years ago, led by congressman Louis Stokes of Ohio, an African-American - had led an inquiry into this, and the problems were supposed to be fixed. What's the status of that?

Mr. BENJAMIN: What happened is in the early '90s - you're right, congressman Stokes expressed some real interest in that. And he pushed the cemetery very, very hard to fix that section that had fallen into disrepair. What the cemetery did was go out there in the early '90s and replace all the headstones and trim the grass, but they appeared to have done away with approximately 500 headstones.

In other words, I've got paperwork that shows that the people are supposed to be there, but there's no headstones. In other cases, the headstones are above the wrong plot. In other places, they're just missing altogether. So what you've got in Section 27, the most historical section of the cemetery, is a very, very beautiful mess.

MARTIN: Hmm. You know, one's tempted to believe that part of the reason for the neglect of Section 27 is that there was a lack of regard for the persons buried there. But you're saying the problems are more widespread than that. What's your analysis of that and why this has gone on for so long?

Mr. BENJAMIN: Congressman Stokes believed that Section 27 didn't get the honor that it deserved because there were African-Americans buried there. And he believed that overtly or not, that there was racism involved. And that section of the cemetery didn't matter as much to the people who ran the cemetery because there was African-Americans buried there. I don't have any evidence that suggests it, but that certainly was his allegation at the time. And in fact, I just interviewed him recently, and he does believe that that's the case.

MARTIN: What does this mean for a family member who wants to visit a loved one who would be buried there?

Mr. BENJAMIN: It's hard to fathom what it's like. And I can't quite imagine it. I can tell you this, that I have been out in Section 60 on some days. That's the section of the cemetery where Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are being laid to rest. And I have seen young women - presumably, it's their husband - hugging the headstones, hugging them, down in the grass, or sitting in front of them with a young child in their lap, crying. And I have, in the course of my reporting, in some cases - and I'm thinking one in particular, where one service member, they accidentally buried one service member on top of another, then they put the wrong headstone out there.

They dug one of the service members up and moved them, and didn't tell the family, even though they are supposed to by regulation. And I ended up being the one to tell the family. Hi, it's Mark Benjamin. I'm are you aware that your sister, who served 26 years in the Air Force, was buried on top of another service member, and then dug up and moved? And the family was unaware of that, and was very upset and hurt.

MARTIN: What do you think this story tells us? Because it's kind of hard to fathom. I mean, this is a place that if you have any interest in our government, if you have any interest in the people who serve in uniform, this is a place that comes to mind. Presidents are buried there. So, what do you think this is about? I mean, is it that people just don't care?

Mr. BENJAMIN: I do think that to a certain extent, there are people at the cemetery who do not care. I mean, I don't know how else there are so many burial problems and it's so obvious once you look at it, and so many people knew about it - including some Army officials, I think is interesting; the Army's not saying that - that it's difficult to understand an explanation other than callousness. And that's a very difficult thing to get your mind around.

I would one of the things that's interesting, too, is that some of the people at the cemetery that - Superintendent Jack Metzler grew up at the cemetery. His father was the superintendent there, and he's been the superintendent there since 1991. The deputy superintendent, Thurman Higgenbotham, has been there since the 1960s. Maybe it is a case where people have just become callous over time, and they just don't care anymore.

MARTIN: Mark Benjamin joined us in our studio in Washington. He conducted an investigative report for Salon, at Salon.com, of Arlington National Cemetery and conditions there. He's been reporting on this for quite some time, and we hope you'll keep us posted. Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. BENJAMIN: Thank you so much.

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