20 years of problems at Arlington Cemetery
Monday, July 26, 2010
From the graves of Supreme Court justices to a section for freed slaves, Arlington National Cemetery seems to have been egalitarian in its mistakes.
Although the cemetery is best known as a final resting place for military veterans, Section 27 holds the graves of thousands of former slaves, black Civil War soldiers and others whose tombstones read only "citizen" or "civilian" or "unknown." Where a village of freed slaves once stood, the cemetery's master map shows a strip where 70 such graves are tightly packed in three rows. But a visitor there would find not a single tombstone -- only a walkway and rock-strewn drainage ditch.
Less than half a mile away, at the busy heart of the cemetery, tour guides point out "Justice Hill," where eight Supreme Court justices are buried. But the earthly success of its occupants has not immunized the hill from years of poor record-keeping.
In many cases -- including the plot where former Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and a Vietnam War veteran are buried -- two of the VIPs are buried where the map notes just one. Another grave that appears occupied on the map has no headstone. And seven graves that appear empty on the map are filled.
Six weeks after the Army ousted Arlington's top two officials in a sweeping probe of the nation's most hallowed cemetery, The Washington Post found problems with more than 130 graves between one of its most high-profile sections and one of its least known.
In addition, an examination of thousands of pages of internal records and interviews with dozens of current and former Army employees reveal that the Army has launched multiple investigations into Arlington over the years.
Not only did they turn up chronic problems with record-keeping, but they also revealed a dysfunctional management structure that operated with limited and fractured oversight and a contracting system that appeared to operate outside the normal structure for the federal government. Again and again, attempts to correct the situation fell short.
Congressional investigators are examining how far up the chain of command responsibility should rest as well as why, among other issues, cemetery officials frittered away at least $5 million for computer upgrades with little to show for it.
And yet again, the Army is trying to fix the problems that it has known about for almost 20 years but has been unable to solve.
For most of that time, behind the scenes of crisp ceremony and manicured expanse, an ugly personal feud simmered between the superintendent, John C. Metzler Jr., and his chief deputy, Thurman Higginbotham.
It began almost as soon as Metzler was hired in 1991 and continued to this year, Army investigators found. Twice, in 1992 and 1997, the two men were chastised like schoolboys by Army generals and told to get along.
Both men were ambitious Army veterans. But their backgrounds differed vastly.