Warner to introduce bill to revoke reserved plots at Arlington

The list is 84 names long — mostly generals and colonels. There’s a sergeant major of the Army, a former assistant Army secretary, a Navy vice admiral, a former congressman.

They are VIPs with one of the most prestigious tickets in Washington: a reserved plot at Arlington National Cemetery, the nation’s premier military burial ground.

On Thursday, Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) is to introduce legislation that would revoke those reservations — made under an unofficial system that continued for decades in violation of Army policy — and force the cemetery to determine how many plots have been set aside.

In an interview Monday, Warner said he wanted to make sure that Arlington does not play favorites with its graves and that it does not honor any reservations made after 1962, when officials decided the cemetery’s coveted plots should be offered without regard to rank or status.

“It’s a disgrace that backroom deals were being made and some general might trump the rights of a fallen soldier from Iraq and Afghanistan,” Warner said.

He said he suspects the unofficial reservation system, in which generals and other top officials were promised choice spots by cemetery leaders, explains why the cemetery continued to rely on an antiquated and easily manipulated paper recordkeeping system.

Starting in 2002, the cemetery spent years and millions of dollars on the project to update the system but had nothing to show for it. Today, the cemetery still relies on a paper recordkeeping system, which shows, for example, that many choice gravesites are not available when they are. A House subcommittee has scheduled a hearing to investigate mismanagement at the cemetery.

Sloppy recordkeeping was at the heart of many of the problems identified in a report last year by the Army inspector general. The report found graves that were unmarked and misidentified, plots marked as occupied that had no headstone, and urns mistakenly dug up and dumped in a dirt pile.

Warner, who has gathered a team of technology companies to help the cemetery digitize its records, said he wonders “whether this failure to act was ineptness or purposeful to make sure there were people jumping the line and not following the rules,” he said. “This may be an explanation as to why they kept the paper system — because there was no transparency; there was no audit trail.”

Army spokesman Gary Tallman said the bill would “codify existing Army regulation and policy prohibiting gravesite reservations.”

Reserving plots at Arlington was the norm until 1962 as the cemetery became popular and began to fill up. But for years afterward, the practice of reserving choice gravesites continued under Raymond J. Costanzo, who was superintendent from 1972 to 1990. John C. Metzler Jr., his successor, who ran the cemetery until he was forced to retire last year, also apparently allowed people to pick areas of the cemetery where they wanted to be buried, Army officials have said.

The Army, which investigated the matter two decades ago and is looking into it again, compiled a list from 1990 with “senior officials” who have plots that “were de facto reserved in violation of Army policy,” according to an Army memo from the time.

The list is full of top military brass and one former politician: G. William Whitehurst, a World War II veteran and former congressman from Norfolk who served on the House Armed Services Committee. In 1986, his last year in Congress, a member of his staff urged him to pick out a plot at Arlington, he said in an interview Monday.

He said he was unaware that he was allowed to choose his gravesite. But the staffer, who was married to the deputy commander of the Old Guard, the Army unit that performs the burial ceremonies at Arlington, said that he could.

So he made an appointment with Costanzo, who showed him three spots that he and his wife might like. “The fact that I was a congressman certainly cut some ice,” Whitehurst said.

As they passed a section full of admirals and other high-ranking officials, Whitehurst joked to his wife that they should be buried there so passersby would wonder, “How did this squab get buried among all these flag officers?”

But his wife said she wanted to be buried near a tree. So Costanzo took them to a spot “up the hill from Joe Louis and within shouting distance of the [Memorial] Amphitheater.”

“It’s like the maitre d’ from the Lion D’Or,” Whitehurst said, referring to a French restaurant that was frequented by Washington power players.

About 10 years ago, he said, his wife decided they should be cremated and interred in the columbarium at their church.

“I did in fact write to the [Arlington] superintendent and said, ‘You can give that plot to somebody else,’ ” he said.

Kathryn Condon, who was appointed executive director of the Army National Cemeteries Program last year in the aftermath of the scandal, said the cemetery will honor reservations made before 1962 as long as the deceased meet current eligibility requirements. She said that the cemetery refuses to accept reservations made after 1962 but that officials try to accommodate families’ wishes on burial locations.

There are 3,500 reservations on file. But Condon said it is unclear how many of those are valid. Officials aren’t sure whether everyone on the list is alive — some reservations date to the late 1800s — or still wants to be buried at Arlington.

Cemetery officials have pledged to sort through every reservation, but Warner said his legislation would ensure that gets done.

“What we’re saying is, you’ve got to follow the rules,” he said. “Some general shouldn’t be able to say, ‘See that plot under the tree with the view? That’s the one I want.’ ”

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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