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Chaos at Arlington Cemetery: Mismarked graves, dumping of urns

By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 11, 2010; A01

Army investigators at Arlington National Cemetery have found more than 100 unmarked graves, scores of grave sites with headstones that are not recorded on cemetery maps, and at least four burial urns that had been unearthed and dumped in an area where excess grave dirt is kept.

The investigators found that these and other blunders were the result of a "dysfunctional" and chaotic management system at the cemetery, which was poisoned by bitterness among top supervisors and hobbled by antiquated record-keeping.

As a result, John McHugh, secretary of the Army, on Thursday announced a series of sweeping reforms at the nation's most hallowed cemetery; a scathing reprimand for the outgoing superintendent, John C. Metzler Jr.; and the appointment of a new director to oversee cemetery operations and continue the investigation.

In addition, the cemetery's deputy superintendent, Thurman Higginbotham, who apparently feuded with Metzler, was placed on administrative leave pending disciplinary review. Metzler, who has been superintendent for 19 years, announced May 5 that he would retire July 2. His father held the job before him, from 1951 to 1972.

McHugh said he attends every Arlington funeral of a soldier who has perished in Iraq or Afghanistan. He apologized Thursday "to the families of the honored fallen" and called the failings "unacceptable."

There were two cases, later corrected, of mismarked graves in the cemetery's Section 60, which holds mostly Iraq and Afghanistan war dead. But the Army said it was not sure exactly when most of the other mistakes were made. Most other errors were found in sections 59, 65 and 66.

"The other grave sites are older," said Lt. Gen. R. Steven Whitcomb, the Army's inspector general. "I'm not prepared to say they go back to the Civil War, but they're older grave sites in some sections where there may not be as active -- the number of burials -- as others." Some Arlington burials date to 1864.

The cemetery probe came after complaints from family members and a series of reports at Salon.com detailing many of the stark blunders the Army found.

The investigation guessed that the dumped burial urns had been inadvertently dug up during the opening of an old grave so a new relative could be buried there. The urns were then deposited with the excavated dirt in what is called the spoils area. One urn bore no identification and had to be reburied as "unknown," the investigation found.

The cemetery's records, many still kept on cards, were poor. Cemetery maps showed 117 graves that had no corresponding headstone or burial card. Ninety-four grave sites marked as unoccupied on maps had headstones and burial cards. And the Army said it's not sure if all such mistakes have been found.

A dismayed McHugh reprimanded Metzler in writing for his "failure to properly execute oversight responsibilities for the administration, operation and maintenance of Arlington National Cemetery . . . [and] ensure [the cemetery] conducted its interment operations in accordance with applicable laws and policies."

"Given your decision to retire," McHugh wrote, "I have elected not to initiate more severe disciplinary action or to direct your reassignment." He named Kathryn Condon, a veteran civilian Army executive, to the new post of executive director of the new Army National Cemeteries Program. She will supervise Metzler until he retires.

"I am deeply distressed by the anguish caused recently to family members of our honored heroes buried here," Metzler said in a statement supplied by the cemetery. "During each discrepancy brought to my attention I reacted promptly to ensure the matter was addressed to the family member's satisfaction and I want to ensure everyone at Arlington National Cemetery will remain committed to honoring our nation's veterans during this time of transition."

A cemetery spokeswoman said she did not have a comment from Higginbotham.

The cemetery, which surrounds Arlington House, once the home of Civil War Gen. Robert E. Lee, is across the Potomac River from the District. It averages 27 funerals each workday and about a hundred a week, and it is known for its perfect rows of modest white tombstones. More than 300,000 people are buried there, including two presidents, scores of generals and admirals, and tens of thousands of men and women who served in the U.S. military and their spouses and children.

The investigation portrayed a broken cemetery management system that Metzler and his staff were unable to correct. Some problems cited in the report "are a repeat of the deficiencies detailed in a 1997 inspection report . . . which currently have gone largely unaddressed for the past 12 years," McHugh said in a Thursday afternoon briefing at the Pentagon.

The report says: "Evidence indicated that no incident or mistake committed at [the cemetery] was treated as 'serious' and that no one was ever held accountable for an error. Instead, Mr. Metzler's testimony suggests he thought repeated mistakes were inevitable."

McHugh and Whitcomb said they found nothing intentional or criminal in the miscues. The report noted that although burials at Arlington have skyrocketed in recent years -- 100,000 since 1990 -- staff at the cemetery has dropped from 140 to 97.

Cemetery officials have set up a call center to address concerns about burials: 703-607-8199. It will be open from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. starting Friday.

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