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Chaos at Arlington Cemetery

Army investigators at Arlington National Cemetery have found more than 100 unmarked graves, scores of grave sites with headstones that are not recorded on cemetery maps and at least four burial urns that had been unearthed and dumped in an area where excess dirt is kept.

The investigators found that these and other problems were the result of a "dysfunctional" and chaotic management system at the cemetery, which was poisoned by bitterness among top supervisors and hobbled by antiquated record-keeping.

At least 211 remains were identified as potentially mislabeled or misplaced at the nation's most hallowed cemetery, and there could be more, the Army's inspector general, Lt. Gen. R. Steven Whitcomb, said Thursday.

"Of all the things in the world, we see this as a zero defect operation," Whitcomb said.

As a result, John McHugh, secretary of the Army, announced a series of sweeping reforms; a scathing reprimand for the outgoing superintendent, John Metzler; and the appointment of a new director to oversee cemetery operations and continue the investigation.

In addition, the cemetery's deputy superintendent, Thurman Higginbotham, who apparently feuded with Metzler, was placed on administrative leave pending disciplinary review. Metzler, who has been superintendent for 19 years, announced May 5 that he would retire July 2.

McHugh said he attends every Arlington funeral of a soldier who has perished in Iraq or Afghanistan. He apologized Thursday "to the families of the honored fallen" and called the failings "unacceptable."

There were two cases, later corrected, of mismarked graves in the cemetery's Section 60, which holds mostly Iraq and Afghanistan war dead. But the Army said it was not sure exactly when most of the other mistakes were made. Most other errors were found in sections 59, 65 and 66.

"The other grave sites are older," Whitcomb said. "I'm not prepared to say they go back to the Civil War, but they're older grave sites in some sections where there may not be as active — the number of burials — as others." Some Arlington burials date to 1864.

The cemetery inquiry came after complaints from family members and a series of reports at Salon.com detailing many of the stark blunders the Army found.

The investigation guessed that the dumped burial urns had been inadvertently dug up during the opening of an old grave so a new relative could be buried there. The urns were then deposited with the excavated dirt in the so-called spoils area. One urn bore no identification and had to be reburied as "unknown," the investigation found.

The cemetery's records, many still kept on cards, were poor. Cemetery maps showed 117 graves that had no corresponding headstone or burial card. Ninety-four grave sites marked as unoccupied on maps had headstones and burial cards. And the Army said it's not sure if all such mistakes have been found.

Salon.com's Mark Benjamin, who has been investigating discrepancies at Arlington since early 2009, told the Washington Post that the results announced by military officials should not be trusted because they were gleaned from a survey of only three sections in the cemetery.

There could be many hundreds, if not thousands, more remains missing or graves misidentified, he said. More than 300,000 people are buried at Arlington.

Correcting errors at grave sites may require disinterring remains or using X-ray machines to detect whether remains are present in unmarked sites, Whitcomb said.

Dorothy Nolte, 68, of Burns, Tenn., said she learned last year that the remains of her sister, Air Force Master Sgt. Marion Grabe, who had been buried at Arlington in March 2008, had been moved to a new grave site. Nolte said she went to Arlington to find out that her sister's urn had been buried on top of another soldier, but then it was disinterred and moved to another grave site. She said she had not been informed of the transfer.

"I made them unearth the urn so I could see the name," Nolte said. "I have peace knowing my sister is indeed in the right place."

As for the Army investigation, "I think that it's a good thing that the truth is coming out, and it's certainly a situation that needs to be rectified," she said.

A dismayed McHugh reprimanded Metzler in writing for his "failure to properly execute oversight responsibilities for the administration, operation and maintenance of Arlington National Cemetery . . . (and) ensure (the cemetery) conducted its interment operations in accordance with applicable laws and policies."

"Given your decision to retire," McHugh wrote, "I have elected not to initiate more severe disciplinary action or to direct your reassignment." He named Kathryn Condon, a veteran civilian Army executive, to the new post of executive director of the new Army National Cemeteries Program. She will supervise Metzler until he retires.

This report contains information from the Washington Post, Associated Press, McClatchy Newspapers and New York Times.

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Chaos at Arlington Cemetery 06/10/10 [Last modified: Friday, June 11, 2010 7:24am]
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