20 years of problems at Arlington Cemetery

By Aaron C. Davis and Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, July 26, 2010; A01

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.

Personal feud

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.

When Metzler moved into the white-washed, slate-roofed superintendent's cottage near the cemetery's historic Arlington House, he was coming home.

He had grown up in the cottage while his father, John Sr., was superintendent from 1951 to 1972. The younger Metzler sledded down the cemetery's hills as a child and often rode on the ceremonial horse-drawn caissons on their way back from important funerals, he said in a 1991 interview.

And when he returned with his wife and three sons at age 39, it was to a cemetery where his father had just been buried. In May the previous year, the elder Metzler, depressed over his poor health, had taken his life at his home in Florida, according to state records. A sergeant during World War II, he was buried near war hero Gen. Jimmy Doolittle, not far from the Tomb of the Unknowns.

Higginbotham had been hired as a security guard under the elder Metzler in 1965.

He worked his way up to a position as cemetery representative, handling funerals, and was interim superintendent before Metzler was hired, preparing the cemetery budget and appearing before Congress.

He later told the Army that he did not initially apply for the top job because of concerns about his race. "I just kind of rationalized with myself and said, 'I don't know if the system is ready for a black man to be superintendent of Arlington Cemetery.' " He finally did apply, was not selected and filed a complaint that he was passed over because of discrimination.

In 1992, Metzler and Higginbotham were "counseled" by the commander of the Military District of Washington to "work together."

Four years later, Army inspectors were back, looking into reports of discrimination, continuing bad morale and "gross mismanagement and failed leadership," according to the Army's 1997 report.

Some employees thought racial motivations were to blame for the lack of heating and air conditioning in a maintenance facility staffed mostly by blacks. Others said their request to hold a Christmas party in the visitors center had been denied because alcohol would be served, only to learn that Army brass were allowed to hold a celebration there and serve wine.

Army inspectors thought that little had changed since 1992 because there was frequent turnover among the Army officers who supervised the cemetery and because "Mr. Metzler has been able to 'wait out' changes in military leadership." And at least one employee suggested that the military leaders were content to go along until their "shift" was over.

Quick-approval contracts

With the number of burials increasing because of two wars and the aging of the World War II generation, cemetery officials realized -- years after other military cemeteries -- that they needed to computerize their work. Many records were still kept on index cards. The cemetery used hand-drawn maps on six-foot-wide sheets of paper.

As the work increased, the cemetery's budget more than doubled, from less than $18 million in 2001 to nearly $40 million this year. An increasing portion was spent on outside contractors, but few of the Army's traditional safeguards for monitoring spending were employed. No contracting officer was stationed at the cemetery. And contracting officers and superiors in the Army's Contracting Center of Excellence and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers usually approved whichever company cemetery officials recommended, according to interviews and documents.

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs' subcommittee on contracting oversight has been investigating contracting at the cemetery and has scheduled a hearing for Thursday.

"We know that nearly every possible problem in contracting occurred, and consequences are appalling," said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), head of the subcommittee. "I'm looking forward to talking with those responsible."

Hundreds of contracts were awarded under Section 8a, the federal code allowing agencies to sign noncompetitive contracts with small, minority-owned businesses.

According to federal contracting data, Arlington had landscaping contracts with more than 25 companies. From 2003 to 2007, more than $17 million was spent on such work.

Arlington's critical need was for new computer technology. But Army investigators found that the multimillion-dollar effort proceeded even though the cemetery lacked an IT acquisition strategy, which is required to justify any technology investment of more than $500,000.

Higginbotham served as the "de facto" contracting officer for the technology revamp, even though he had no training to do so, investigators said. He was listed as the government's primary point of contact on 35 contracts that Army investigators say ultimately wasted more than $5.5 million and produced no usable database to track grave sites.

'I had other priorities'

Metzler and Higginbotham are gone from Arlington. Metzler, 62, was harshly reprimanded by the Army and retired July 2. Higginbotham, 68, had been placed on paid administrative leave and has also retired, effective July 3. Through intermediaries, both men declined to comment for this article.

Last week, as throngs of tourists rode Tourmobiles among the pink crape myrtle trees and rolling hills of tombstones, the superintendent's house sat behind its green hedges with rooms empty and most shades drawn.

At a June 30 hearing of the House Armed Services Committee, legislators wanted to know why it had taken so long. Earlier last month, the Army had released yet another inspector general's report, this one after Salon.com articles had detailed long-term problems at the cemetery.

The Army report also found discrepancies in three of the cemetery's 70 sections -- different from ones examined by The Post -- and determined that at least four funeral urns had been inadvertently dug up and dumped in an excess-dirt pile.

Officials say Army policy was to blame for the continuing problems.

"By placing everyone in charge," Secretary of the Army John McHugh said, "no one was in charge."

In 2004, the Army revised its structure for oversight of cemetery operations, replacing a system in which the cemetery was overseen by the Military District of Washington and the assistant secretary of the Army for civil works. The new structure divided cemetery control four ways instead of two.

Responsibility was now shared by the Military District of Washington, the assistant secretary of the Army for civil works, the assistant secretary of the Army for manpower and reserve affairs, and the cemetery superintendent.

It was "fractured, unmanageable oversight," McHugh told the House committee, a "governing structure that . . . did just about everything but govern."

John Paul Woodley Jr. served as assistant secretary of the Army for civil works from August 2003 until December 2004 and again from May 2005 until last year.

Asked who was ultimately responsible for the cemetery at that time, he replied: "It was me."

"I am profoundly saddened by this," he said in a recent interview. "I have thought and thought what I could have done and how I could have seen things that were hidden from view."

Woodley said he had been aware of the cemetery's antiquated record-keeping, its budget pressures, the pace of its work and its need for more space. But he said he was unaware of the management problems Army inspectors found.

From 2003 to 2005, the commander of the Military District of Washington was Major Gen. Galen B. Jackman, perhaps best known publicly as the Army officer who escorted Nancy Reagan during President Ronald Reagan's funeral services in Washington.

Jackman said he, too, "was not aware of anything that was a serious problem."

He did say that in the years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the cemetery was not his top priority. His concern was protecting Washington.

He noted that a regulation directs the military district's inspector general to conduct regular inspections at the cemetery. "Frankly, I had other priorities," Jackman said, "and I had other priorities for the IG."

Jackman was not alone. The last IG inspection had been in 1997.

Asked last week about the three rows of freed slaves' graves and the more than 60 discrepancies in the records for Justice Hill, cemetery spokeswoman Kaitlin Horst said the cemetery's new leaders plan to review each of the cemetery's 70 sections and establish a base line of accountability.

"This is going to take a yet undetermined but likely extensive amount of time and the team feels very strongly that the mission must be done right and not hastily," she said.

Staff writer Christian Davenport and staff researchers Meg Smith and Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.

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