As more problems appear at Arlington, Congress asks for accountability

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to retired Lt. Gen. R. Steven Whitcomb as the Army’s inspector general. Whitcomb retired in November. Maj. Gen. William H. McCoy is the acting inspector general. This version has been corrected.

A day after officials at Arlington National Cemetery acknowledged discovering more problems with burials in the ongoing scandal there, members of Congress sharply questioned Army officials Thursday about why the cemetery’s former leadership wasn’t disciplined more severely.

During a House hearing, Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.) said he was incredulous that John C. Metzler Jr. and Thurman Higginbotham, the top two administrators at the cemetery until they were replaced last summer, were allowed to retire with full benefits. He was particularly troubled that Metzler, the former superintendent, received only a written reprimand.

That reprimand was removed from Metzler’s file when he retired, according to Jennifer Lynch, a public affairs officer for Arlington. The reprimand was supposed to remain for three years, but Metzler retired soon afterward.

“When civilian personnel retire, letters of reprimand are removed from their files at that time,” Lynch said in an e-mail.

Wittman also accused Army Secretary John McHugh and the Army’s inspector general of not taking the issues at the cemetery seriously. Both had been invited to testify at the hearing but did not attend.

“It’s obvious they don’t get it,” said Wittman, chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee on oversight and investigations.

In a statement issued Friday morning, Maj. Gen. Stephen R. Lanza, chief of Army Public Affairs said: “Since becoming Secretary of the Army, Secretary McHugh has been personally involved in righting the wrongs at Arlington: he ordered the Inspector General’s investigation that uncovered the string of serious problems that occurred over many years; he replaced the cemetery’s failed management team; he changed the cemetery’s chain of command, making the Executive Director responsible directly to him. Secretary McHugh has taken charge and provided the leadership needed to fix the problems. To say or imply otherwise is disingenuous and unfair.”

The inspector general’s report released last year found widespread issues at the nation’s most venerated military burial ground: unmarked and mismarked graves, urns that had been unearthed and dumped in a dirt pile, and a chaotic management system that spent millions on botched contracts attempting to digitize the cemetery’s paper records. Since then, cemetery officials have found more issues, including people who had been buried in the wrong place or in unmarked graves.

Despite the continuing revelations, Karl Schneider, principal deputy to the assistant secretary of the Army for manpower and reserve affairs, told the committee that legally there was nothing further the Army could do to reprimand the former administrators.

“Our jurisdiction to take any administrative action against them evaporated the day they retired,” he said. “Once they retire, we have no control.”

The Army’s Criminal Investigation Division is probing a mass grave at the cemetery, and Schneider said that anyone found culpable could face criminal charges. The grave contained eight sets of cremated remains that officials think may have been dug up elsewhere inadvertently and then stashed in the single grave. An Army CID spokesman confirmed Thursday that the investigation, now in its sixth month, is continuing.

Wittman said he hoped the investigation would be wrapped up shortly. “I hope it’s not a marathon where they push this into the future and hope that it will go away,” he said.

In a status report to Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) on Wednesday, McHugh said Arlington officials have discovered more problems. Though McHugh didn’t detail them in the letter, Arlington officials said they have found three more cases where a grave was unmarked by a headstone.

There were also eight instances in which family members were buried at the same grave site but all of the names were not added to headstones marking the graves.

And they found two instances where grounds crews replaced an existing headstone that correctly identified the deceased with a headstone that was for someone else — meaning two sets of remains were unidentified and two others were wrongly identified.

During the hearing Thursday, Rep. Jon Runyan (R-N.J.) said one of his constituents complained about visiting a relative’s grave in March and finding that the headstone had been replaced with someone else’s.

Although the cemetery quickly fixed the problem, Runyan said he was shocked that a headstone with the correct name could be taken out and replaced with another bearing a different name.

“That should raise a question,” he said. “It’s a different name.”

Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) said accountability should not stop with Metzler and Higginbotham.

“There were whole echelons of support leadership that were complicit,” he said. “This is an organization that is rotten to its core. This is an organization that has conducted itself with — I think the best way to describe it as a culture of incompetence, if not a culture of corruption.”

Patrick K. Hallinan, who replaced Metzler as superintendent last year, defended cemetery staff members, saying they are dedicated workers who care about the fallen. The problem, he said, was that for years they had not been trained or led properly.

“The employees were not provided leadership,” he said. There was “no guidance, and no direction and absolutely no training.”

Since the new leadership team has taken over, the cemetery has been better training its workers, holding them accountable, he said. It has also acquired better equipment.

Christian Davenport covers federal contracting for The Post's Financial desk. He joined The Post in 2000 and has served as an editor on the Metro desk and as a reporter covering military affairs. He is the author of "As You Were: To War and Back with the Black Hawk Battalion of the Virginia National Guard."
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