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Families Skeptical As Arlington Tries To Repair Trust

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Families Skeptical As Arlington Tries To Repair Trust

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Families Skeptical As Arlington Tries To Repair Trust

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host: From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host: And I'm Melissa Block. For years, the word honor defined Arlington National Cemetery. Presidents are buried there, the crew of the Space Shuttle Challenger and, of course, thousands of men and women who served in the military. But reports last year that some remains had been mishandled and even misplaced have tested that honor.

SIEGEL: While the military works to reconcile the records of the 330,000 people buried at Arlington, the cemetery faces a joint Army-FBI criminal probe, and Congress has ordered an accounting by the end of the year. The cemetery recently unveiled changes made so far, hoping to earn back some of the trust they've lost. NPR's Allison Keyes introduces us to two military families who say that they're not sure that's possible.

ALLISON KEYES: Visitors and the family members of servicemen and women buried here at Arlington flock to this hallowed ground where an average 30 funeral services are held daily. But Barbara Tye doesn't have the same sense of honor she once had. She found out her little brother, Army Staff Sergeant Michael Somers, was buried in the wrong place after the family had him disinterred.

BARBARA TYE: They dug one grave to the left of him, and that was an empty gravesite. 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.

KEYES: Somers' family hadn't spoken out till now so as not to disgrace the Army he loved. Barbara Tye says she'll never look at graves at Arlington the same way. But the cemetery staff is working hard to restore the trust of the families and the nation.

Colonel JOHN SCHRADER: We're looking at a map of Arlington.

KEYES: Army Colonel John Schrader is co-chair of the accountability task force that's locating graves, documenting the information on the grave markers, then matching it with digitized paper records and computer databases to get an accurate accounting.

SCHRADER: There's almost 220,000 markers and another 43,000-some columbarium niches that we had to go out and physically count.

KEYES: Army troops armed with iPhones have been out taking pictures of the graves. Army Lieutenant Colonel Jamie Wilmeth explains that the pictures are then fed into a system that helps check if the information on the headstones is correct.

Lieutenant Colonel JAMIE WILMETH: 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. We'll go into different databases, VA databases, personnel databases, and we will determine what the truth is.

KATHRYN CONDON: If we find a discrepancy, we will immediately work with the next of kin.

KEYES: Kathryn Condon is executive director of the Army National Cemeteries Program. She took over at Arlington after the previous administrators were forced out in the wake of the 2010 Army inspector general report. Condon and her staff dealt with the case of Staff Sergeant Somers, 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.

CONDON: Hopefully, that 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.

KEYES: 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. But Staff Sergeant Somers' sister, Barbara, says that presumption is a slap in the face.

TYE: They told us my brother's paperwork was in order. He was where he was supposed to be, but he wasn't.

KEYES: Condon says the cemetery won't know how many discrepancies there are until the task force finishes work. But Scott Warner says he doesn't think Arlington can ever restore his trust. Warner had a son, Marine Private Heath Warner, disinterred to confirm that he was buried in the right place. He was.

SCOTT WARNER: I don't think there's anything they'll ever be able to do to take that pain and suffering that we went through going through this process.

KEYES: Condon says the cemetery will be ready to make its mandated report to Congress in December of this year. Allison Keyes, NPR News, Washington.

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