Army ready to take drastic action to clear up record-keeping at Arlington Cemetery

By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 1, 2010; B01

The secretary of the Army said Wednesday that officials were prepared to dig up graves, open caskets and take DNA samples from the deceased if it is necessary to sort out the record-keeping chaos at Arlington National Cemetery.

"If we are so authorized and if it is necessary, we have not ruled out the possibility of actually opening caskets," said Army Secretary John McHugh, noting that it would be an extreme measure, ". . . and should it thereafter become necessary for DNA . . . that would be something we would contemplate."

McHugh spoke at a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee called to look into recent revelations of mismanagement, mishandling of remains and extensive record foul-ups at the nation's most hallowed cemetery.

A probe by the Army inspector general, unveiled June 10, found a wide array of long-standing problems at the cemetery.

Among other problems, the Army found 211 discrepancies between burial maps and grave sites and cases in which funeral urns were inadvertently dug up and dumped in a dirt pile.

McHugh said investigators already are digging into some of the 117 sites without tombstones or burial cards that are marked as occupied on cemetery maps to see whether anyone is buried there. No names were associated with the map sites.

Five have been examined so far, an Army spokesman said. In each case "the map was in error," McHugh said. "There were no remains in those graves, and those graves will be reclaimed and reused for appropriate purposes and a fallen hero sometime in the future."

The Army also found 94 graves that had tombstones and burial cards but were not listed on cemetery maps. Twenty-two of those sites have been probed so far and found to be occupied, a cemetery spokeswoman said.

Committee Chairman Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) said he thinks a complete survey of graves at the cemetery should be conducted to check for burial mistakes.

Skelton said the Army 's recent investigation into mistakes at the cemetery was so "limited" that it probably revealed "only a fraction of the problem."

"We must be prepared that a 100 percent survey of the cemetery and all its operations, which I believe must now be undertaken, will yield a larger number of problems that must be addressed," Skelton said.

The Army has focused, so far, on only three of the cemetery's 70 sections. McHugh said a complete cemetery survey was possible but would be difficult.

"To do that for 330,000 [graves] is going to take a better system of record-keeping," he said. As soon as the cemetery's antiquated records system is improved, "we will begin checking and cross-checking those records for all of those graves."

In addition to the record-keeping problems, the inspector general found a dysfunctional management system and a poisonous relationship between cemetery Superintendent John C. Metzler Jr. and Deputy Superintendent Thurman Higginbotham.

The two men had been at odds as far back as 1992, the year after Metzler took over at the age of 39, said Lt. Gen. R. Steven Whitcomb, the Army's inspector general, who also testified at the hearing.

"It appears that they struck some kind of accommodation where they kept in separate lanes," Whitcomb said. "Although what we found and what contributed to the unhealthy work environment was those lanes tended to overlap."

Metzler, who had grown up at the cemetery while his father served as superintendent from 1951 to 1972, was issued a severe reprimand by the Army. He is retiring Friday. Higginbotham has been on paid administrative leave pending a disciplinary review.

"I cannot understand how the Army has allowed the problem to fester for years," Skelton said.

"There is clear evidence that in 1992 the Army was aware of a level of leadership discord at Arlington that would not have been tolerated at any other organization," he said. "The situation cried out for intervention, but the Army's response was to further withdraw from Arlington Cemetery operations," he said.

Also at the hearing Wednesday officials disclosed that the Defense Department's probe of the 2008 firing of cemetery public affairs officer Gina Gray did not find that firing constituted reprisal because cemetery officials did not know of her whistleblowing when they decided to fire her.

But the firing of Gray, whose later revelations helped spark the current cemetery investigation, was an "obvious failure to exercise sound personnel management," according to a one-page summary of the probe made public after the hearing.

The department recommended that the Army take "corrective action" against the responsible cemetery officials and find an "appropriate remedy" for Gray.

In an e-mail Wednesday, Gray said cemetery officials "knew very well" of her whistleblowing when they fired her. "It's hard to imagine how the Defense Department is ignoring those facts now," she wrote. "But nothing is surprising me about this scandal, since it's what I've been saying for years."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company