VA addressing gravesite issues that haunted national cemetery system

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The National Cemetery Administration is making progress digging its way out of trouble from a 2011 internal investigation that found 15 sets of remains in the wrong spots and scores of mismarked, unmarked and sunken headstones, according to agency watchdogs.

Veterans Affairs Assistant Inspector General Linda A. Halliday testified before a House subcommittee on Wednesday that the NCA revised its review methods and caught onto more than 100 mistakes it had missed during its initial examination of the nationwide cemetery system.

Evidence of system-wide problems surfaced in 2011 after workers tested new maps at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery in San Antonio, where investigators found 47 markers offset by one space from their correct spots.The mistakes prompted VA undersecretary Steve L. Muro to apologize to affected families.

A 2012 inspector general’s audit found that VA officials “did not provide adequate time and resources” for certifying gravesite accuracy during a subsequent review and that cemetery directors felt overwhelmed by pressure to meet the agency’s deadline.

Camp Butler National Cemetery. (Veterans Affairs).
Camp Butler National Cemetery. (Veterans Affairs).

In it’s initial analysis, the inspector general discovered gravesite errors at national cemeteries across the country, from the Mid-Atlantic to the Midwest and California, according to a 2012 Washington Post report.

Cemetery officials at the time said they “could not explain why the errors were not identified,” according to the inspector general.

During a self-initiated review, the cemetery administration failed to identify all problems within its network, causing the agency to understate its accuracy problems to Congress last year, Halliday said.

The inspector general’s office audited the NCA review and found 7 instances of misplaced and unmarked headstones that the cemetery system had missed during its initial analysis.

Investigators also found that many maps for the cemetery system were inaccurate and severely outdated, with some having last been revised 40 years earlier.

Cemetery officials agreed to address the issues identified by the inspector general and “provided an appropriate action plan” to strengthen internal controls, according Halliday’s testimony.

The NCA conducted a follow-up review with independent inspectors and caught on to 146 additional errors that the agency had missed during its self-initiated analysis, according to testimony from Wednesday’s hearing.

“NCA did take action once we identified additional errors and concerns about their procedures,” Halliday said. “However, NCA needs to take further actions as recommended in our report to identify and prevent gravesite errors to ensure VA properly fulfills its mission.”

Halliday also praised VA officials for their responsiveness in dealing with the gravesite issues. She told the congressional committee: “I have some confidence that they will continue to update the maps that are relied upon, and they’re putting in new systems that will really help strengthen the whole oversight and the way they have their controls in the program.”

 

(Corrections: An earlier version of this blog item stated that the VA oversees Arlington National Cemetery, but the Department of the Army runs that cemetery. The article has also been updated to reflect the fact that the inspector general has not reported new concerns about gravesight accuracy since issuing its 2012 report. A previous version suggested otherwise.)

 

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Josh Hicks covers the federal government and anchors the Federal Eye blog. He reported for newspapers in the Detroit and Seattle suburbs before joining the Post as a contributor to Glenn Kessler’s Fact Checker blog in 2011.
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