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More parts of Arlington Cemetery to be checked for missing or wrong gravestones

By Christian Davenport
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 12, 2010; B04

Army investigators could find many more unmarked or unidentified graves as they widen their probe into Arlington National Cemetery, a process that could take months as a new leadership team takes over the cemetery, officials said.

A day after the Army secretary released a scathing report that depicted the cemetery as dysfunctional and chaotic, veterans and the families of fallen service members reacted with outrage Friday, and Army officials continued to apologize for what they called "unacceptable" conditions at the cemetery.

The investigation by the Army's inspector general found more than 200 unmarked or misidentified graves that were the result of dated and sloppy record-keeping and poor management. It remained unclear Friday whether officials would exhume remains or use X-ray or other technology to determine who is buried where.

As a result of the scandal, the Army reprimanded Superintendent John C. Metzler Jr., who is retiring July 2, and his deputy, Thurman Higginbotham, who was placed on administrative leave pending a disciplinary review. The pair's "long-standing rift" was at the heart of the cemetery's problems, investigators found.

"It is clear that their failure to effectively communicate with each other, coupled with their obvious lack of mutual trust and respect for the other . . . is largely responsible for [the] unhealthy and ineffective organizational climate," investigators wrote.

McHugh appointed Kathryn Condon, a veteran civilian Army executive, to oversee the cemetery and continue the investigation, which began last year after complaints from family members and a series of reports at Salon.com about the problems.

So far, investigators have found 117 graves that are marked as occupied on cemetery maps but have no headstones. There are 94 more marked on maps as unoccupied even though they have headstones. In addition, the investigation found that at least four burial urns were unearthed and dumped in an area where excess dirt is kept.

Investigators have looked at 18 of the cemetery's 70 sections and found that most of the problems were in sections 59, 65 and 66, where those who served anytime between World War I and Vietnam are buried. Sections 65 and 66 were closed in 2003; Section 59 is still active. Officials declined to name any of the fallen whose graves could have been impacted.

As the probe continues, investigators will examine more of the 624-acre cemetery, which could lead to the revelation of even more problems, said Gary Tallman, an Army spokesman.

"The investigators went where their sources and information led them to go," he said. In the weeks and months ahead, "the new leadership team is going to reestablish the baseline of accountability, and they are going to take a hard look at every section."

A call center to address concerns about burials has been set up: 703-607-8199.

The Army's criminal investigation division conducted two reviews of its own. The first found that an employee's e-mail account had been illegally accessed, but investigators could not determine by whom. The second involved allegations of conflict of interest between Arlington personnel and a civilian contractor.

The allegations were thoroughly investigated, said CID spokesman Christopher Grey, but no disciplinary action was taken because of a "lack of substantial credible information."

Dorothy Nolte, 68, of Burns, Tenn., told the Associated Press on Thursday that she learned last year that the remains of her sister, Air Force Master Sgt. Marion Grabe, had been buried on top of another soldier's in March 2008. Then cemetery officials exhumed the urn and moved it to another grave site without informing her, the AP reported.

"I think that it's a good thing that the truth is coming out, and it's certainly a situation that needs to be rectified," she said.

Families and veterans groups reacted angrily Friday to the news surrounding one of the nation's most sacred sanctuaries. More than 320,000 are interred at Arlington, including two presidents and scores of fallen from every war and major conflict in U.S. history.

Visiting the grave site of her son Friday afternoon, Mary Bliss of the District said she was grateful that she was sure "he is where he is."

The problems plaguing the cemetery "are a disgrace to the nation," she said. "I can't fathom how this could happen in this country."

Jill Stephenson of Rosemount, Minn., whose son Cpl. Benjamin Kopp, a 21-year-old Army Ranger, died at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in July as a result of injuries suffered in Afghanistan, said the scandal "violates a level of trust that people should have in an institution like our nation's national cemetery," she said. "I think they should all be fired. . . . People view Arlington as one of the most sacred grounds in our entire country."

Walter Hedlund, a World War II veteran who landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day, said: "I'm disgusted. I think it's a goddamn shame. Think of some poor World War II widow coming to visit her husband's grave, not knowing if he's there. What is going through her mind? Can you imagine?"

Staff writers Michael E. Ruane, Mark Berman and Rick Rojas and researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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