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.