Arlington Cemetery lacked voice mail for vets’ families

For years, family members trying to call Arlington National Cemetery to make funeral arrangements often heard the phone ring. And ring and ring. If no one answered, there was no way to leave a message.

That’s because the cemetery didn’t have a voice-mail system that helped families schedule funerals. As a result, families unable to reach someone at the nation’s premier military burial ground may have given up on Arlington Cemetery and had their loved ones buried elsewhere, according to a new report by the Army’s inspector general.

Adding voice mail was one of the early changes the cemetery’s new leadership made last year when it took over after a scandal that involved millions of dollars wasted in botched contracts and the burial of bodies in the wrong places. Soon, messages started piling up by the hundreds. Now that so many more families are reaching the cemetery, it has another problem: Except for those killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, the average wait for a burial with full military honors has increased to almost three months.

The “lack of responsiveness” in the past, the report says, had led to an “artificially low” demand for burial.

This year, the average wait time is 87 days, according to the report. That’s about a two-week increase from last year and more than a month longer than in 2004, when the wait was 54 days.

Each military branch provides its own honors, and the waits vary among them, the report found. The families of Air Force and Navy veterans had to wait the longest — 98 and 100 days, respectively. The wait for Army veterans was 82 days, and for Marines, 78 days. To be eligible for burial at Arlington Cemetery, veterans must have died while on active duty, be entitled to retirement pay or have received a top award, such as the Medal of Honor.

Officials at the cemetery, which performs as many as 30 funerals a day, could not say why the previous administration did not have voice mail.

They said they are acting to alleviate wait times by adding funeral services on Saturdays and adding a fifth caisson, allowing for the ceremonial transport of more caskets per day.

The latest IG investigation, which will be discussed before the House Armed Services Committee on Friday, is a follow-up to the scathing investigation a year ago that touched off congressional inquires. Since then, cemetery officials have discovered additional problems, including a mass grave that contained eight unrelated sets of cremated remains.

The Army’s Criminal Investigation Division and the FBI have launched a broad criminal probe into actions at the cemetery, including contracting fraud and the mishandling of remains. They are also investigating whether some grave sites were reserved in violation of Army regulations.

Arlington Cemetery’s new leadership has made significant progress cleaning up the mess by improving contracting and burial procedures, employee training and technology, the IG report found. The cemetery not only has voice mail; it’s on Facebook and Twitter, too.

After the scandal, the new IG report says, 20 percent of the cemetery’s 102 staff members retired or resigned. Since then, it has been authorized to increase its staff to 165 employees.

“Significant progress has been made in all aspects of the cemetery’s performance, accountability and modernization,” the report says. “The mismanagement that was found at ANC in 2010 no longer exists.”

The cemetery has embarked on an ambitious effort to account for every grave as was mandated by Congress. For weeks, soldiers from the Old Guard have been taking photographs of the front and back of every headstone, and cemetery officials are reconciling those images with the corresponding paperwork.

Army Secretary John McHugh, who ousted the previous leadership and installed a new team, said the report shows that the cemetery has made improvement.            

“In just over a year, the cemetery’s new management team has made major progress in reconciling decades’ worth of paper records with physical graveside inspections to regain accountability,” McHugh said in a statement. “We’re confident that the Army is on the right path toward repairing the cemetery’s failures and restoring the confidence of Congress and the American people.”

Christian Davenport covers federal contracting for The Post's Financial desk.
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