Veterans groups and lawmakers suggest that VA take over Arlington Cemetery

Dysfunctional management, misplaced remains and contracting problems have been found in investigations into Arlington Cemetery.
By Christian Davenport
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 23, 2010

Veterans groups and members of Congress are questioning whether management of Arlington National Cemetery should be transferred from the Army to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The discussions come after investigators found dozens of unmarked or mislabeled graves, millions of dollars wasted on technology contracts and mismanagement that stretched from the cemetery's leadership to the upper echelons of Army leadership in the Pentagon.

"Let's let the experts take over," said Joe Davis, a spokesman for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the country's oldest major veterans organization. Running cemeteries "is a primary task of the VA, whereas the Army's primary task is to fight and win our wars."

The American Legion has also called for the VA to be more involved at Arlington, the nation's busiest military cemetery, which has an average of 27 funerals a day and 4 million visitors annually. And several members of Congress, including Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, have asked whether the VA, which manages 131 cemeteries nationwide with 3 million graves, would be better suited to operate Arlington.

The VFW called the VA "a recognized expert in the maintenance and operation of national cemeteries." In a statement, the American Legion said it was heartened to hear that the Army has appointed a top VA cemetery official as interim superintendent of Arlington.

If the VA "can fix the problems at Arlington, then that option should be on the table," said Paul Rieckhoff, the founder and executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.

VA officials would not comment in the absence of a formal request to transfer authority over the cemetery. But since the scandal broke, the department has been lending its expertise, and staff, to help the cemetery remedy its problems.

Investigators looking into allegations of mismanagement at Arlington initially found more than 200 unmarked or mislabeled graves, as well as cases in which funeral urns had been dug up and dumped in a dirt pile. But the number of burial problems will probably grow much higher, officials say, as they widen the probe, a process that could take months and might include exhuming remains to determine who is buried where.

Army investigators attributed those problems to mismanagement at the cemetery, and the top two leaders were ousted as a result. But Senate investigators also found a lack of financial oversight by Army officials tasked with overseeing the cemetery. Army officials in the Pentagon recently said they cannot find as many as half of the contracts for IT services at the cemetery.

Complaints unheeded

Veterans' advocates wondering whether Arlington would be better managed under the VA were also bothered that Army officials ignored warnings from a whistleblower who for years tried to alert Army officials in the Pentagon to problems with millions of dollars being awarded to questionable contractors.

Rory Smith, the cemetery's former budget director, took his concerns up the chain of command, but they were dismissed by top Army officials, who continued to allow the cemetery to spend millions of dollars on information technology systems that never came to fruition.

Ultimately, Smith was reprimanded by his superiors at Arlington. In a union grievance and a whistleblower complaint, Smith alleged he was punished for speaking out.

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