A wreath and a small temporary grave marker stand to the left of Marine Pvt. Heath Warner's exhumed grave.
A wreath and a small temporary grave marker stand to the left of Marine Pvt. Heath Warner's exhumed grave. John Poole/NPR
An Ohio couple, worried that their son’s grave had been misidentified at Arlington National Cemetery, came to Washington Wednesday to have his body removed. They wanted to make sure it was really him.
Melissa and Scott Warner were upset in the wake of the Army inspector general's report in June that found that as many as 211 graves at Arlington were unmarked or misidentified. One Senate subcommittee investigation suggests that up to 6,600 burial sites could be affected.
Scott Warner was the portrait of grief. The fragile, birdlike man wore a black fedora, black suit and black gloves. The lines of his face were etched with sorrow. He spoke about how it feels to wonder whether the coffin buried in Section 60 in the cemetery actually held his son's remains.
Courtesy of Scott Warner
Marine Private Heath Warner
"I’m hoping today that we will know that it is our son," he said.
He stood holding his son's dress Marine cap. Marine Pvt. Heath Warner was 19 when he was killed in Iraq. He died in 2006, three months after being deployed on Sept.11 that year.
Looking For Proof
The report in June about the record-keeping issues upset the family.
"At that point ... the question marks started ... and the doubts began," Warner said.
So the family asked the cemetery for paperwork proving their son was buried where Arlington said he was. But the paperwork was inaccurate and worried them more.
On Wednesday morning, Warner and his wife sat on chairs by their son’s gravesite and watched as his coffin was exhumed and opened. Officials matched a tag on Heath Warner's casket to a tag in the pocket of his dress uniform.
But Warner wanted more proof. His son had been severely wounded, and the family originally identified him by a distinctive tattoo on his arm.
"So I made them — I know it sounds crude — but they had to dig for his arm because of the state of the body, and they did find his arm, and I had them clean his arm, and I was able to verify his kanji [a Japanese system of writing], and I knew then it was Heath for sure," he says.
Scott Warner breaks down in tears after addressing members of the press about the exhumation of his son, Marine Pvt. Heath Warner, on Wednesday. His son's grave was the second to be exhumed since the release of an inspector general's report in June about extensive record-keeping problems at Arlington Cemetery.
Scott Warner breaks down in tears after addressing members of the press about the exhumation of his son, Marine Pvt. Heath Warner, on Wednesday. His son's grave was the second to be exhumed since the release of an inspector general's report in June about extensive record-keeping problems at Arlington Cemetery. John Poole/NPR
Army spokesman Gary Tallman says he hopes the positive identification will go a long way in restoring that confidence. He said the Army is deeply sorry for the family's loss and the pain they endured.
"We regret very much that the Warner family lost confidence in our processes at Arlington cemetery," he said.
This isn't the first family to have questions. Tallman says 1,100 families called the cemetery after the report about the graves. In fact, another body at Arlington had to be moved in August after an Army staff sergeant's wife had his grave opened amid concerns he was buried in the wrong place.
"Look, we've been under no illusions since the Army [inspector general] report came out ... that we would not find more discrepancies — we did," Tallman said. "We contacted the families involved. We fixed those problems, they're satisfied they were fixed, and we're going to continue to work with any family that calls Arlington cemetery to make sure they’re confident."
Hope For Changes
But though Warner identified his son, he still doesn’t trust Arlington. And while he's having his son's remains reinterred there, he wants Congress to enact legislation to allow families to have headstones of their loved ones at Arlington but allow them to be buried somewhere else where there is better oversight.
He would also like to see tourist operations at Arlington temporarily suspended because he doesn't think it can be both a mecca for tourists and a cemetery for grieving families.
Finally, Warner issued an apology to his son.
"Melissa and I want to say we're sorry to Heath," he said.
Warner says they had to do this.
"We just want Heath to know that we love him — and we did this for him," he said.