Arlington Cemetery officials knew about discarded tombstones found in stream

By Christian Davenport
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Officials at Arlington National Cemetery were aware that discarded tombstones were lining the banks of a small stream on the grounds for more than a decade but left them in the mud, officials said Tuesday.

The headstones were put in place to support the bank, and officials apparently did not want to remove them for fear of damaging the stream, said Dave Foster, an Army spokesman.

An Army investigation released this month found a "dysfunctional" and chaotic management system that led to the mislabeling of more than 200 graves and the dumping of at least four urns in a dirt pile. The cemetery's top two leaders -- Superintendent John C. Metzler Jr. and his deputy, Thurman Higginbotham -- were reprimanded and replaced.

Arlington, home of the Tomb of the Unknowns and the burial site of John F. Kennedy, is a national symbol of sacrifice and a popular tourist destination. News that tombstones had apparently been used for erosion control outraged family members of the deceased and others.

The cemetery's new management team did not know about the headstones in the stream until they were told last week by The Washington Post. They vowed to remove them as soon as possible and dispose of them in accordance with a 1994 policy that dictates that discarded stones be crushed and recycled.

"The sensitivities on proper removal and recycling of replacement stones from Arlington have changed over time," said Gary Tallman, an Army spokesman. "Prior to 1994, there were clearly different procedures in place, with one result being disposal of headstones . . . intact, which then further resulted in some cases in their reuse, rather than full disposal and recycling. The current policy provides a consistent way to recycle replacement headstones."

But three years after the headstone policy was changed, a 1997 report from the Army Corps of Engineers on possible expansion of the cemetery noted the headstones lining the stream near a maintenance yard across from Section 28, said Joyce Conant, a Corps spokeswoman.

"Without speaking to the person who made the decision to use [the headstones], I can't speculate, but I believe they thought it was a good use of material," she said.

Cemetery officials were reminded again of the discarded headstones last year, as the Corps worked on a stream erosion project. A June 2009 Corps document obtained by The Post recommended: "Existing old headstones throughout stream channel to be excavated and stockpiled."

It is not unusual for headstones to be replaced at the sprawling cemetery overlooking the Potomac River where more than 300,000 service members and their relatives are buried. Some get damaged. Others become worn and faded. Officials also routinely replace headstones to update burial markers when other family members die and are interred.

It is not clear what the headstone disposal policy was before 1994, but they were not always kept on the cemetery's grounds in Virginia. For instance, headstones linked to Arlington were found in a remote area of the Patuxent Research Refuge near Laurel in 2008, when a volunteer came across them as he was cutting grass. That area was part of Fort Meade until the early 1990s.

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