Arlington Cemetery officials knew about discarded tombstones found in stream

By Christian Davenport
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 23, 2010; A01

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.

Refuge officials have known of the headstones since then but decided to leave them where they are, said Nell Baldacchino, the refuge's visitors service manager. They are in an area that is closed to the public, she said.

"Nature is taking over, and as far as I can tell, there isn't any reason to do anything," she said. "To me, let's just let history lie where it is. I don't think it's something John Q. Public would come across."

The headstones found at the research center are mostly in fragments. But names are visible on at least two: George J. Bihrer, an Army private from Iowa who died in 1918, and Sam Houston Pentecost, a Texan and former timber worker who died the same year. Officials confirmed Tuesday that they are buried at Arlington National Cemetery, with new headstones intact. But the officials could not explain how their old headstones ended up in an overgrown field on what was once an Army base.

Bihrer's nephew Floyd of Sac City, Iowa, said he didn't know his uncle, nor did he know he was buried at Arlington. But he wasn't distressed that his old headstone ended up in a field. "I could see how that could happen after 100 years," he said. "It shouldn't happen, but I could see how it does."

Relatives of J. Warren McLaughlin, a retired Navy captain and veteran of World Wars I and II whose replaced headstone was found in the streambed at Arlington, had a different opinion, saying last week that they were "appalled."

That headstone and others in the streambed have been removed, said Foster, the Army spokesman. But it will take more time to remove the others embedded in the bank because of environmental concerns.

"We fully understand the importance of removing and properly disposing of headstones in accordance with our 1994 policy," said Kaitlin Horst, a cemetery spokeswoman. "However, we must coordinate with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality to ensure that all environmental concerns are addressed before proceeding."

Staff researcher Meg Smith and staff writer Elizabeth Tenety contributed to this report.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company