Photo of veteran's tombstone in Arlington Cemetery creek startles son

Dysfunctional management, misplaced remains and contracting problems have been found in investigations into Arlington Cemetery.
By Christian Davenport
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 18, 2010

It was around lunchtime Thursday when Mike McLaughlin settled into a chair in his family room and opened the newspaper. There, on the front page, was a photograph of a burial marker lying in a stream at Arlington National Cemetery and an article that led to a sudden realization.

"This is my father's tombstone," he called out to his wife.

Then he became, as he said, "unglued." How could his father -- who dropped out of college to serve in World War I, rejoined the Navy the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor at the age of 44 and then served again during the Korean War -- be so dishonored?

Upset, he called the cemetery, which had been trying to figure out whom the headstone belonged to after The Washington Post alerted officials there Wednesday morning that several mud-caked markers were lining a stream at one of the country's most venerated burial grounds.

A few hours later, a top Arlington official called McLaughlin back to apologize for his father's tombstone being discarded in such a way and assure him that it will be disposed of properly.

In an interview from his home in the Shenandoah Valley, McLaughlin, a 74-year-old Arlington County native, said he was "appalled."

"You can't harm Dad, and you can't harm Mom," he said, his voice cracking. "But the way this was handled is going to affect service personnel who are dying right now and in years to come. They deserve some honor and respect."

"We thought it was a sacrosanct place," said his wife, Judé McLaughlin. "I can't believe they'd be so cavalier with such an important thing."

Cemetery officials said they will take corrective action immediately and are to meet with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on Friday to figure out how the headstones can best be removed without harming the stream or surrounding environment. They confirmed that one of them belonged to J. Warren McLaughlin, a retired Navy captain who died in 1971.

After his wife, Elizabeth, died four years later, the cemetery ordered a new headstone and engraved both names on it, said Kaitlin Horst, a cemetery spokeswoman. That headstone is still there today, in Section 47. The old headstone was discarded and somehow ended up in the stream, along with many others. It was still unclear Thursday how they ended up there or why.

But who was J. Warren McLaughlin?

A patriot, his son said. And a hero. A dedicated father and husband, whose military career spanned five decades and inspired his son to join the Navy.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company