2 bodies found in wrong plots at Arlington cemetery

Dysfunctional management, misplaced remains and contracting problems have been found in investigations into Arlington Cemetery.
By Christian Davenport
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 15, 2010; 11:46 AM

Arlington National Cemetery officials discovered that two people were buried in the wrong plots after exhuming their remains last month, an Army official confirmed Tuesday.

It's the first revelation of bodies being exhumed since the Army released an inspector general report in June that found extensive record-keeping problems at the nation's premier military cemetery, including more than 100 unmarked graves, scores of grave sites with headstones that are not recorded on cemetery maps, and at least four burial urns that had been unearthed and dumped in an area where excess grave dirt is kept.

The cemetery took the extraordinary step of opening the grave of an Army staff sergeant after his wife heard the news about the cemetery's problems and worried that her husband was buried in the wrong place.

When officials opened his grave three weeks ago, they found that someone else's remains had been interred there, said Gary Tallman, an Army spokesman. The cemetery found the sergeant buried in a nearby plot under someone else's headstone, his wife said in an interview.

Meanwhile, cemetery officials are scheduled Wednesday morning to disinter the remains of a third person, Marine Pfc. Heath Warner, whose family members became worried that he was buried in the wrong spot after finding inaccuracies in his burial paperwork.

The Army sergeant's wife spoke on the condition of anonymity for her and her husband, who was 30 when he died of cancer, because she feared the cemetery's mistake would mar his name and detract from his service.

Tallman could not provide any information about the other remains buried in the wrong places or explain how such errors occurred. But he confirmed that both mistakes were remedied.

The Army sergeant's wife became suspicious about the location of her husband's remains shortly after his funeral in January 2006. The service was held despite a massive snowstorm, she said, but cemetery officials could not bury her husband until later because of the weather. A few months later, when she went to visit her husband's grave site, she couldn't find it.

"I searched all around looking for his headstone," she said.

After about 30 minutes, she said, she found the headstone about 60 to 70 yards away from where the funeral had been held, which she thought was odd. She lived with that discomfort for more than four years, and when the news of the inspector general report broke in June, she called the hotline that the cemetery had set up for concerned families. The report said some of the affected graves were in Section 66, where her husband was buried.

When she called the hotline, she was told that the paperwork for her husband's grave was in order and that he was buried where he was supposed to be, she said. She was unsatisfied with that answer because she knew that the cemetery was still relying on paper records despite several costly efforts to digitize its system.

After a couple of weeks of calls, she reached a top cemetery official, who asked, "What can we do to make you feel right about this?"

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