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A case of mismanagement at Arlington

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By Dana Milbank
Sunday, June 20, 2010

The discovery was grisly: Two hundred eleven instances of unmarked graves, misplaced headstones and even the dumping of human ashes in a pile of dirt.

The Pentagon inspector general's report this month on Arlington National Cemetery's mismanagement was shocking. But it's just the beginning of the scandal at the nation's most hallowed burial ground. There is good reason to believe there are thousands -- perhaps more than 15,000 -- such desecrations of our military dead and their families.

How do I know this? Gina Gray told me -- and she knows, quite literally, where the bodies are buried.

You won't find Gray's name in the IG's report, but Pentagon sources have confirmed to me that virtually everything in it was a product of the allegations Gray made and the evidence she provided to investigators. Gray, a former Arlington public relations officer fired in 2008 after she spoke out about how cemetery officials were acting improperly, went on a one-woman campaign to expose the wrongdoing at the graveyard.

What she found was so appalling that the Army's actions so far amount to a "Band-Aid for a sucking chest wound," she told me in her typically blunt manner. The inspector general detailed 211 problems in three sections, but there are 70 sections at the cemetery, she said. "In Section 27 alone there are over 500 problems, and that wasn't one of the three they released in their report and yet they knew about it." The IG also missed several mud-caked headstones that The Post's Christian Davenport found lying in a streambed at Arlington this week.

The 32-year-old Gray, who served in Iraq before working at Arlington, is a classic whistleblower, and the government should be honoring her for the wrongs she righted at Arlington. Instead, a separate IG report on her firing has been bottled up for a year. It's long past time for the Pentagon to get that report out and give Gray the recognition she deserves.

I've followed Gray's case with interest because I was the one who -- by complete accident -- started the whole controversy. When I went to Arlington in April 2008 to cover the funeral of a soldier killed in Iraq, the deputy cemetery superintendent, Thurman Higginbotham, decided to keep reporters (invited to cover the funeral by the family) too far away to see or hear. Gray, new in her job, knew that Higginbotham's behavior wasn't grounded in Army regulations. She argued with him. I reported the confrontation. Gray was fired.

As a rule, the harder a government agency tries to keep the media away, the more dysfunction that agency is trying to hide. The newly unemployed Gray used her free time to expose the dysfunction at Arlington -- and the funeral coverage was the least of it. In the summer of 2008, she brought her findings to her congressman, Jim Moran, to Sen. Jim Webb, and to Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin. All three offices checked with the Army and were given assurances -- false, as it turns out -- that the matter was under thorough investigation.

Even after the Army's Criminal Investigations Command in May 2009 concluded that Higginbotham made false statements to investigators about accessing Gray's e-mail without authorization, the Pentagon stalled. Finally, after Gray-inspired press accounts about Arlington's problems began to appear, the IG last August began his investigation into the mishandled remains.

Now that the separate IG report on the cemetery mismanagement has vindicated her, Gray has more questions: Why hasn't the Army fired Higginbotham (who is on administrative leave) and his boss, Superintendent John Metzler (who is being allowed to retire)? Why was Gray's old job at Arlington given to Kaitlin Horst, daughter of Karl Horst, who, as commanding general of the Military District of Washington, operates the cemetery? What has become of the millions of taxpayer dollars supposedly spent on electronic grave records at Arlington that don't exist?

And, more important than all of those: How many more remains have been mishandled or misplaced at Arlington? Overall, Gray claims, Arlington has mishandled "a minimum of 5 percent" of those it has buried. With 330,000 graves, "there's a minimum of 15,000 errors."

Given Gray's record, the Pentagon should take that charge seriously. Gray, for her part, has finally found a new job in the federal government and doesn't want her old job back. The back pay she might be eligible for is negligible. "Mostly what I want is an apology and an explanation," she says, for "why for two years they knew about this and ignored it."

The Pentagon owes her that at the very least.


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