Burial problems found at VA cemeteries

The Department of Veterans Affairs has found scores of misplaced headstones and at least eight cases of people buried in the wrong places at several military cemeteries across the country.

The review by the VA’s National Cemetery Administration follows the revelation of widespread burial problems at Arlington National Cemetery, which touched off congressional inquiries and a criminal investigation.

After the scandal at Arlington, which included mismarked and unmarked graves and people buried in the wrong spots, some veterans groups and members of Congress had called for the cemetery, which is run by the Army, to be transferred to the VA.

Although many of the errors at Arlington were caused by an antiquated paper-record system, VA officials said the problems at seven of its national cemeteries were largely the result of sloppy work during renovations. Headstones and markers were temporarily removed from the ground and reinserted in the wrong places.

Staff members at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery in San Antonio were testing the accuracy of a new cemetery map in July, for instance, and realized that 47 markers were one space over from where they were supposed to be.

The problem, they discovered, arose from a 2004 project to regrade the soil and realign the markers, which tend to shift as the ground moves. The markers were lifted and put back one plot away from the correct grave site.

The error resulted in four people being buried in the wrong places. To save space at sought-after national cemeteries, family members are typically buried in the same plot. Because the headstones were in the wrong spots, some people were not buried with their loved ones.

A similar problem was discovered in November at Houston National Cemetery. In 2002, after a similar renovation, 14 grave markers were put in the wrong places. No one noticed the error at the time. A person was then buried in what officials thought was a family member’s grave site; it was actually one plot over.

VA officials first publicly acknowledged the problems after The Washington Post asked about the cemetery audits. In an interview Monday, Glenn Powers, the National Cemetery Administration’s deputy undersecretary for field operations, said the VA is working to put all headstones in the right places and attempting to contact affected families to explain and apologize. But because the affected graves cover a long period — from decades ago to recent years — it might be impossible to locate all the next of kin, he said.

“We strive to operate the best cemetery system in the world, and if something like this happens, there is no excuse,” Powers said. “The amount of times this happens is rare. But there is no margin of error; there shouldn’t be any kind of error. . . . We need to learn and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

In addition to the cemeteries in Texas, he said, problems have been discovered at national burial grounds in Ohio, New Mexico, New Jersey, Maryland and Pennsylvania. The cemetery administration is waiting on reports from Golden Gate and San Francisco National Cemeteries.

The audit, which was ordered in October, included only sections of cemeteries that had undergone renovations in the past decade. In all, the VA checked 1.3 million grave sites in 85 of its 131 cemeteries. It also checked graves at Camp Chase Confederate Cemetery in Columbus, Ohio.

Powers said that once the initial survey is complete, he will order a more comprehensive review of every section of every cemetery. He said he could not rule out further problems.

“We can’t be certain until we check them,” he said.

At Dayton National Cemetery in Ohio, officials found that 14 grave markers had been returned to the wrong spots after renovations in 2003 and 2004. They also discovered that in 1984, two veterans were buried in unmarked graves occupied by people who had died in 1894 and 1907.

At Santa Fe National Cemetery in New Mexico, 12 headstones and markers were put in the wrong spots after work in 2003 and 2009. One family member was buried in the wrong place.

At Beverly National Cemetery in New Jersey, Loudon Park National Cemetery in Baltimore and Philadelphia National Cemetery, officials discovered that a total of 28 headstones had been misplaced. At Beverly, officials also found an unmarked grave.

The four people buried in the wrong spots at Fort Sam Houston have been relocated to the correct grave sites, according to the National Cemetery Association.

The four re-interments at the other cemeteries have yet to happen.

Cemetery officials said many of the errors were caused by contractors. They said administrative penalties are possible, but no one has been disciplined so far. Officials said future contracts for projects that involve markers being moved would require the headstone to be kept at the grave site.

“It is very disappointing that after we finally turned a corner at Arlington National Cemetery, veterans’ families are today being informed that their loved ones have not been laid to rest where originally thought at VA cemeteries around the country,” Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, said in a statement to The Post. Miller is scheduled to receive a report on the problems Tuesday.

“Ensuring our veterans are buried with dignity and respect is one of the most important things we as a nation do to honor the men and women who have sacrificed on our behalf. I am committed to rectifying this problem as quickly as possible to give the families affected peace and assurance, and I will work with the VA to make sure this is done immediately.”

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