The review of VA cemeteries, which began last year, is the latest in a series of troubling failings involving the remains of service members. Those mistakes have tainted some of the nation’s most venerated military shrines, from Arlington National Cemetery, overlooking the Potomac, to the Presidio, on the shores of the Pacific.
Arlington, which is run by the Army and has taken extensive measures to fix its problems, has been shaken by a scandal involving mismarked and unmarked graves, people buried in the wrong spots and urns that had been unearthed and dumped in a dirt pile. The Air Force has also said that remains of Iraq and Afghanistan service members, and victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, processed at its Dover Air Force Base mortuary had been cremated and sent to a landfill.
VA officials said the problems at its national cemeteries were largely the result of sloppy work during renovations involving contractors. Headstones and markers were temporarily removed from the ground, cleaned while sod was repaired and then reinserted in the wrong places. In all, there have been a total of more than 200 misaligned headstones.
Glenn Powers, a deputy undersecretary for the VA’s National Cemetery Administration, said “the numbers of discrepancies remain small but are always unacceptable. We will make appropriate notifications to those family members that we can contact and, in keeping with our culture of accountability and continuous management improvement, fix the issues.”
The problems were first discovered at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery in San Antonio last July when officials tested the accuracy of new maps and realized 47 markers were one space over from where they were supposed to be.
As a result of the misplaced headstones, officials said that four people ended up being buried in the wrong spots there. To save space at sought-after national cemeteries, family members are typically buried in the same plot. But with headstones in the wrong spots, some people were not buried with their loved ones.
VA officials on Tuesday said that no one ended up being buried in the wrong spots at Golden Gate or San Francisco National Cemeteries. But they said Golden Gate had 33 graves with the wrong headstones and 18 that were unmarked. At San Francisco, which is at the historic Presidio, 48 graves had the wrong headstone and three were unmarked.
They also discovered a headstone at an unoccupied grave at Riverside National Cemetery, also in California.
The review, which was ordered in October, included only the sections of cemeteries that had undergone the so-called “raise and realign” renovations in the past decade. In all, the VA says it has now checked 1.5 million graves at 93 of its 131 cemeteries. Now that it has completed that phase of the review, VA cemetery officials have pledged to review the more than 1.5 million gravesites, and could not rule out the possibility of finding more misplaced headstones and remains.
It will do so under the oversight of Congress. U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, has said the committee would be investigating “the extent of these problems.”
Last month, he said that the VA must “put in place the proper oversight and procedures while renovations are taking place at its cemeteries around the country to ensure further graves are not disturbed. Irrevocable pain has been caused to the families of our veterans affected by these mistakes, and I don’t want one more family to have to endure a second burial again.”
Last week, he visited Dayton National Cemetery, where officials found 14 headstones in the wrong places and two veterans who were buried in 1984 in unmarked graves that were already occupied. In a statement, he said he was “impressed by the local leadership in correcting these problems and setting in place procedures and processes to ensure mistakes don’t happen in the future. It is my hope that VA takes a comprehensive approach and determines procedures for all cemeteries as should be their policy.”
At a Capitol Hill budget hearing this month, Steve Muro, undersecretary for memorial affairs at the VA’s National Cemetery Administration, expressed regret and said, “I will make no excuses for these mistakes.” He said that since the problems were discovered the VA has adopted stricter accountability procedures for remains, including requiring contractors to keep headstones at gravesites during renovations.
In addition to the problems found in California, Texas and Ohio, the VA’s review also found mistakes at national burial grounds in New Mexico, New Jersey, Maryland and Pennsylvania.