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

By Christian Davenport
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 18, 2010; B01

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.

He was born in Burr Oak, Kan., in 1896, the son of a railroad man, the oldest boy among nine children. He went to college and made good grades but dropped out over the objections of his father, who wanted him to be the first member of the family to receive a college degree.

It was 1917. World War I was raging, and the young J. Warren McLaughlin wanted to serve. After the war, he left the Navy, moved to Arlington and worked as an engineer for the Department of the Interior.

Mike McLaughlin remembers sitting on his father's lap as a young boy in 1941 when the news of Pearl Harbor broke on the radio. His father leapt up at the news. "I was dumped on my butt on the wood floor," Mike McLaughlin recalled. "I joke that I was the first Washington area casualty of the Second World War."

The next day, he said his father went to rejoin the Navy and was soon deployed to the Pacific. There, while helping unload a ship, U.S. forces came under attack. An artillery shell landed close to the ship, causing him to fall from one of the decks.

Mike McLaughlin said the Navy wanted to award his father the Purple Heart, but he refused, saying that "his injury was caused by his stupidity, not enemy action," because he was leaning too far over the rail when the shell hit.

After World War II, the elder McLaughlin served at the Pentagon in the Naval Reserves until the late 1950s. Mike McLaughlin followed in his father's footsteps and became a Naval Reserve officer after college, retiring as a commander.

Arlington has long been an important place for him. It's not only where his parents are buried but his daughter as well. She died when she was 4 days old.

And it's where he used to ride his bicycle as a kid with friends from the neighborhood.

"We'd ride through Fort Myer into the back of the cemetery and have one whale of a downhill ride and out the main gate," he said.

So he was especially dismayed when the scandal at Arlington Cemetery broke last week. The Army's inspector general found that more than 200 grave sites were unmarked or misidentified and that at least four burial urns were unearthed and dumped in an area where excess dirt is kept.

As a result, the Army has 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.

Mike McLaughlin had been following the news closely. Then on Thursday, after he settled into his favorite chair with the paper, the story was no longer just about the cemetery. It was about his father's memory.

Staff researcher Julie Tate, staff writer Rick Rojas and editorial aide Brian Kuhta contributed to this report.

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