Warner asks Army for update on Arlington National Cemetery fixes

In a letter to the secretary of the Army, Sen. Mark R. Warner said Friday that he was concerned that the Army has not implemented a list of recommendations that could improve operations at Arlington National Cemetery.

In January, a consortium of Northern Virginia technology companies issued a report finding that antiquated paper record-keeping and a lack of oversight led to the mishandling of remains at the nation’s most important military burial ground. It also found that urns had been left out on desks and file cabinets.

The report, compiled by the Northern Virginia Technology Council, outlined ways for the cemetery to digitize its records, improve its scheduling and establish a chain of command for remains as they move from funeral homes to burial.

In his letter to Army Secretary John McHugh, Warner (D-Va.) said he wanted to “express my concern and disappointment about a lack of significant follow-up on the Army’s efforts to incorporate and implement the recommendations.”

He also asked for an update on the criminal investigation that was launched seven months ago after cemetery officials discovered a mass grave where eight sets of cremated remains had been apparently dumped. Despite using sophisticated forensic technology, officials have not been able to identify three of those remains, which will be buried as “unknown.”

The discovery of the mass grave and other problems identified in the tech council report came on the heels of an Army Inspector General study last summer that found widespread problems at the cemetery. They include unmarked and mismarked graves, millions wasted in botched contracts to computerize paper records and at least four urns found in a pile of excess dirt.

The scandal led to the ouster of the cemetery’s top two leaders. It also prompted legislation from Congress requiring the nearly 150-year-old cemetery to account for every one of the more than 320,000 remains entombed there. Congress is also looking into whether the Department of Veterans Affairs, which operates 131 national cemeteries, would be better suited to run the cemetery.

Army representatives could not be reached for comment about Warner’s letter.

When the report was issued in January, Kathryn Condon, executive director of the Army’s cemeteries program, said Arlington had already made many of the changes outlined in the report.

Since then, she has said that the Army has continued an ambitious effort to repair the problems, including buying new burial and landscaping equipment and boosting the staff from 102 to 159.

To prevent burial mix-ups, she has said that there is a new chain-of-custody procedure that guides the handling of remains. The cemetery has also trained 16 employees as contracting representatives.

Officials have begun creating a master database that eventually would replace the flawed maps that have been used to chart Arlington’s 70 sections for decades. The cemetery has detailed aerial photographs of the sections and plans to gather pictures of the front and back of every headstone. Officials would then match the photos with the cemetery's burial records to find, and then fix, the discrepancies that Condon said would inevitably emerge.

Warner, however, said there “has been a lack of sustained follow-up with our office.”

He asked McHugh for an update on the “progress the Army has made to date to implement management and technology solutions at Arlington, including efforts to create and maintain a culture of accountability among the workforce.”

He also wanted more information on where the cemetery is on updating its record-keeping system.

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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