VA’s cemeteries working to maintain reputation after burial problems

It scores higher than Hershey, the chocolate maker, and even Cadillac. On the American Customer Satisfaction Index, which rates private companies and government agencies on a scale of zero to 100, the little-known National Cemetery Administration not only beats the State Department and the Pentagon but also Google and Amazon.

Year after year, it consistently scores well into the 90s — rarefied territory that even the most beloved private companies never reach.

But after revelations that more than 240 graves sat incorrectly marked or unmarked, in some cases for years, and that at least eight people were buried in the wrong spots at several cemeteries across the country, the Cemetery Administration's vaunted reputation has been bruised.

As the agency continues to discover new problems, it is facing congressional scrutiny, concerns from veterans’ groups and outright anger from some families, who say their confidence in the agency responsible for taking care of their loved ones has been shaken.

“When we talk to families that are questioning their loved ones’ resting place, their emotions are in turmoil,” said Ami Neiberger-Miller, spokeswoman for Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, a nonprofit group that works with military families. “Some people are not able to go forward and ask the questions because they’re too difficult to ask. Others feel compelled to.”

Jennifer Tullis, the widow of a Marine sergeant whose urn was placed in a columbarium at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery in San Diego, felt the need to ask. Which is how she came to witness a funeral home director chip away at her husband’s clay-like ashes with a screwdriver several weeks ago — an episode that left her and her mother-in-law distraught.

Concerned that there may be more problems in the vast military cemetery system, first established by Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War, the Department of Veterans Affairs has embarked on a massive effort to check every one of its 3.1 million graves and fix any errors. Since the problems were first reported this year, VA officials have apologized and said they have implemented safeguards that would prevent the problems from happening again.

“I will make no excuses for these mistakes,” Steve Muro, the VA’s undersecretary for memorial affairs, told Congress this year. He said the agency has put in place “stricter accountability procedures for remains,” which include additional oversight of the contractors and cemetery employees responsible for the mistakes.

The problems were the latest in a series of scandals involving veterans. Arlington National Cemetery found dozens of incorrectly marked and unmarked graves, people buried in the wrong places, and urns that had been unearthed and dumped in a dirt pile. At the Dover Air Force Base mortuary, some remains of Iraq and Afghanistan service members, and victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, were cremated and sent to a landfill.

Like Arlington and Dover, the VA cemetery system holds an important place in the American consciousness, both for the sacrosanct work it does and for what it symbolizes: a nation’s commitment to honor the fallen. And in the massive VA bureaucracy, which provides health-care and college tuition benefits to millions of veterans, burial assistance is perhaps one of the most overlooked, but intimate, services the VA provides.

About 14 percent of all veterans choose to be buried — at no cost — in a national cemetery, such as Quantico National Cemetery in Virginia. Since 1973, interments have increased by more than 200 percent to 111,800 in 2010, according to VA officials. The numbers are expected to continue to increase for the next couple of years. Now veterans and their families are buried at a rate of 468 a day at national cemeteries, which often look like Arlington, with rows of straight white headstones.

VA officials first found a problem in July when they went to check the accuracy of new maps at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery in San Antonio and discovered 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 incorrectly.

Then in November, VA officials found 14 markers in the wrong spots after a similar renovation project at Houston National Cemetery. After lifting up headstones to make way for digging equipment, VA staff also misplaced more than 100 markers at Golden Gate and San Francisco national cemeteries. And in the past couple of weeks, the department has reported a few more incidents of graves with the wrong headstone, bringing the total number of errors to 251 at 13 different cemeteries, or 10 percent of all cemeteries in the VA system.

“Those mismarked graves are the result of mismanagement at every level,” said Peter Gaytan, the executive director of the American Legion, who served as an honor guard at Dover Air Force Base during his military career.

Still, he and others have given VA credit for acting quickly to remedy the mistakes and for offering support to affected families.

VA officials point out that the problems affected a tiny percentage of burial sites — 251 of the almost 1.6 million they’ve checked so far. And funeral officials say that the problems found at the national cemeteries are not especially egregious.

“If you’re looking at the macro situation, given the magnitude of what VA has to deal with, that’s not a bad percentage,” said John Fitch, a senior vice president with the National Funeral Directors Association.

But that has provided little comfort to Jennifer Tullis.

After Tullis’s husband died in 1999, he was cremated and inurned at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery. About two years later, Tullis, now 31, noticed that the plaque on the columbarium marking his niche had been replaced with one that got his middle name wrong. Instead of John, it read Joseph.

She complained, and the plaque was corrected. But she said she never did get a full explanation of why it had been switched in the first place. Then, in January, as news reports circulated about the problems at national cemeteries, she started to worry about her husband’s remains.

“I’ve always felt something was wrong,” she said. “And when the stories started breaking at Arlington, and then at other cemeteries, I knew I couldn’t let it go.”

In late January, she contacted the cemetery, which eventually opened the niche and found that the urn had degraded. Tullis said she was beside herself, but cemetery officials said they would transfer the ashes to a new urn and that they would recommit his remains.

For the ceremony, Tullis’s mother-in-law flew in from Utah, and Tullis hired a photographer, hoping new images would erase the bad memory of the degraded urn. But when she arrived at the cemetery, the ashes had not yet been transferred. So she and her mother-in-law sat and watched as a private funeral home director struggled to move the ashes, which had hardened due to moisture, to the new urn.

Finally, he asked for a screwdriver, Tullis said, “and he starts . . . hammering at the ashes with a screwdriver.” Bits of ashes started spraying onto the floor and someone got a broom and a dustpan to pick them up, she said.

“I had a panic attack,” Tullis said. “My mother-in-law was in tears.”

In an e-mail to Tullis afterward, Muro, the VA undersecretary, called it “an unfortunate circumstance.” He said that he has “worked for the National Cemetery Administration since 1978, and I only know of a few inci-dences where something similar has occurred,” he wrote.

He closed by writing: “Please accept my apologies.”

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