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Army team at Arlington seeks to guarantee burial records

By Aaron C. Davis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 12, 2010; B01

In the month since Army investigators found hundreds of discrepancies between grave sites and burial records at Arlington National Cemetery, two very different worlds have emerged inside the gates of the Washington area's most venerated cemetery.

For the public, little has changed. Each weekday morning, solemn burials begin in far-flung corners of Arlington -- spread out so that one grieving family won't encounter another. By midday, a constant stream of sweltering tourists treks up the worn path from the Visitors Center to the grave site of President John F. Kennedy and the Tomb of the Unknowns.

But behind locked doors, in meeting and record rooms, a tense operation is underway. Dozens of military officials tasked with identifying the extent of mismanagement by the cemetery's former leaders are racing to meet deadlines to develop a plan to untangle Arlington's antiquated system of recordkeeping and to restore public confidence in the hallowed grounds.

In a windowless room under the main entrance, around a table strewn with phone lines and laptops, Army workers have set up a makeshift call center to focus on a crucial early step: addressing family members' fears that loved ones' graves might have been left unmarked, mis-marked or worse.

Since June 10, when the cemetery's superintendent was reprimanded and his deputy put on leave, a platoon of Army employees has logged nearly 1,000 calls from distraught family members and friends of those buried at Arlington.

Each new call triggers a days-long treasure hunt through the cemetery's paper archives, microfiche and wall-size cemetery maps to verify that every record of a veteran or family member interred matches the white tombstone on the ground.

It's a tedious and sometimes mind-numbing exercise that illustrates just how far Arlington will have to go to reach the level of digitized cemetery records standard at most national cemeteries run by the Department of Veterans Affairs and by other agencies that manage those at historic battlefields.

For most of the years since the first burial at Arlington in 1864, workers have used indexed card files for each section in which burials have been made or authorized. The cards are listed in numerical order, by grave. But the official record of the cemetery's 330,000 interred remains is kept separately and organized alphabetically, by last name.

Unless a family member knows the grave number of a loved one, to begin a search, a call center staff member must determine the approximate date of death to find which section and area of the cemetery was in use when the veteran was buried.

Then, since years of botched technology contracts have left the cemetery without searchable databases, another paper search is undertaken to find the name in the alphabetical records.

A third search is needed to compare grave records to those that accompanied the body from the funeral home. After obtaining all three -- an especially difficult task if the last name of the deceased happens to be Smith -- an Army employee uses a map to locate the grave and take digital photos of the headstone, front and back.

Chris Sudberry, a civilian employee dispatched from the office of the secretary of the Army to head the call center, said sometimes paper records have at first not been easy to find or not been located where call center employees looked. But staff members have matched records for more than 300 burials and closed more than a third of the files launched by inquiries to the call center.

The verified grave site files are scanned and logged, and a copy is sent to the deceased's next of kin, if requested. Army Secretary John McHugh has vowed to keep the call center open as long as needed to address families' concerns.

In recent days, the number of calls has tapered off, said Kaitlin Horst, a cemetery spokeswoman. But cemetery officials expect the number of calls to spike each time new questions are raised.

At a hearing late last month, McHugh told the House Armed Services Committee that Army officials were prepared to dig up graves, open caskets and take DNA samples from the deceased if necessary to sort out the recordkeeping chaos.

An Army inspector general's survey of three of the cemetery's 70 sections found that more than 100 graves were unmarked and that scores of others that had headstones for burials had not been recorded on cemetery maps. At least four burial urns had been unearthed and dumped in an area where excess grave dirt is kept.

"We know this is extremely important to everyone," Horst said, speaking for the new team McHugh put in charge of the cemetery. "We are committed to ensuring the records are accurate."

The call center can be reached at 703-607-8199 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.

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