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2 bodies found in wrong plots at 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?"

"At this point, I think I'd like to open my husband's grave for my own peace of mind," she recalled telling the official.

On Aug. 24, she flew to Washington, arriving near midnight, and was greeted by Kathryn Condon, who was put in charge of a newly formed Army Cemeteries Program to oversee Arlington when the former leadership was ousted in June.

Condon had bad news: They had opened her husband's grave and found someone else in it. "She said she would personally see to it that my husband's remains were found," the sergeant's wife said.

The next evening, Arlington officials discovered that he had been buried in a nearby plot under someone else's headstone, she said. It was unclear Tuesday night whether that headstone belonged to the person found in the sergeant's plot.

The sergeant's wife said his coffin was never opened. She was able to identify it because she had picked it out. She said there was a waterproof cylinder with her husband's name attached to one of its handles. Her husband was then reinterred in a different plot in what she called "a small, wonderful service."

"I was angry when I first heard about all of this," she said. "But it's a new staff there, and you can't be angry with people who didn't cause the problem."

Scott Warner, however, is angry with the cemetery. Like the sergeant's wife, he grew concerned about his son's grave after the news of the report. He, too, called the hotline and was told that his son was buried where he was supposed to be. Like the sergeant's wife, he demanded proof that his son was buried in the correct spot.

He grew more concerned when the paperwork provided by the cemetery incorrectly stated that his son's remains were transferred from Oaklawn, Ill., directly to Arlington. Rather, Warner said, his son's body was sent from a funeral home near his home town of Canton, Ohio, to a funeral home in the Washington region, where his remains were stored until the morning of the funeral, Warner said.

He said Arlington officials could not provide any paperwork documenting the chain of custody for the remains. In a statement, Tallman said responsibility for the transfer of remains falls to the funeral home, the family and the service branch that is providing the family with casualty assistance. The cemetery "does not have any responsibility for remains until they arrive on the cemetery grounds," he said.

"My son deserves to have the dignity of being in the right place," Warner said. "Our family should be able to go to his grave without a doubt in our mind that that's his grave."

Heath Warner was 19 when he was killed by a bomb in Iraq in 2006. Because of the severity of his wounds, he had a closed coffin. His family identified him by a tattoo on his right arm, his father said.

In a statement, Tallman said, "We are deeply sorry for the Warner family's loss, regret their loss of confidence and are committed to taking every step necessary not only to resolve this matter to their satisfaction, but to fully restore the faith and confidence of the American people in the operation of this most hallowed ground."

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