Arlington Cemetery transfer from Army to VA may not be necessary, report says

A federal review of Arlington National Cemetery, mandated by Congress because of the burial scandal there, has found that transferring the national shrine from the Army to the Department of Veterans Affairs may not be necessary.

A Government Accountability Office report, released Thursday, found that the Army “has taken positive steps to address management deficiencies at Arlington and has implemented improvements across a range of areas.”

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But while the cemetery’s new leadership has made steady progress in fixing the problems that have plagued the nation’s most revered military burial ground for years, another GAO report said the cemetery still doesn’t have full oversight of many of its multimillion-dollar contracts.

The reports — one on the cemetery’s contracting procedures, the other on its management — were requested by Congress last year after the Army inspector general found widespread problems — including unmarked or mismarked graves, people buried in the wrong spots, and urns that had been dug up and dumped in a dirt pile — as well as millions of dollars wasted in botched contracts.

Since that report, which led to the ouster of Arlington’s leadership, the cemetery has discovered additional problems, including a mass grave that held eight sets of cremated remains. And the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command and the FBI are conducting a broad investigation into possible criminal activity.

Last year, Congress also required Arlington to complete a full accounting of every grave at the cemetery. That report is due next week.

The problems at Arlington prompted outcries from Congress and veterans groups, who called for Arlington and the Armed Forces Retirement Home, in the District, to be transferred to Veterans Affairs. The VA runs 131 national cemeteries.

In its review, the GAO concluded that putting the VA in charge was “feasible.” But it said that might not be the best decision given the cost and “potential effect on Arlington’s unique characteristics.”

The report notes, for example, that in just over a year, Arlington conducted more than 3,200 wreath-laying ceremonies and has multiple visits from the president and other heads of state. VA cemeteries do not host nearly that many events, the report says, “and as a result they have less experience in this area than the Army.”

The report also says that better collaboration with the VA “may improve operations with less disruption.”

Last year, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the country’s oldest major veterans organization, called for the VA to take over, saying that running cemeteries “is a primary task of the VA, whereas the Army’s primary task is to fight and win our wars.”

VFW spokesman Joe Davis said Thursday that the group’s stance was unchanged “if the Army fails to correct the identified deficiencies.”

According to the GAO, those deficiencies continue to include oversight of its contracts. Specifically, the review found that the cemetery “does not currently maintain complete data to identify and track contracts supporting its operations.”

That, in turn, could lead to “difficulties in ensuring the effective management and oversight of its contracts and related funding.”

In one case, the GAO found that $8.5 million had been designated for a landscaping contract by one office even as a federal procurement database said the figure was $2.1 million.

In its written response included in the report, the Army says that the GAO did not fully capture the Army’s efforts to significantly improve its contracting procedures. “The Army National Cemeteries Program is committed to ensure accountability and diligent conservation of government resources,” wrote Kathryn Condon, the program’s executive director.

Jennifer Lynch, an Arlington spokeswoman, said in a statement that the cemetery “continues to make progress in all aspects of the cemetery’s performance, accountability and modernization.”

GAO investigators also found a few cases of small discrepancies in the paperwork for people buried at Arlington. When asked about the problems, which included misspelled names and missing documents, the cemetery was able to remedy all of the discrepancies but two.

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who sponsored the legislation requiring the GAO report and has been critical of Arlington, said in a statement Thursday that they “show reassuring progress, which is the result of aggressive new oversight.”

“The reports highlight some areas for improvement that I hope Arlington management will take seriously,” she said. “It’s clear that we still have more work to do, and I intend to remain vigilant until I’m confident these failures have been fully addressed.”

 
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