Exhumation confirms that Marine was buried in correct Arlington plot

By Christian Davenport
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 16, 2010; B01

The remains of Marine Corps Pvt. Heath Warner, who was 19 when he was killed in Iraq four years ago, were positively identified Wednesday after his coffin was exhumed from the grounds of Arlington National Cemetery.

After finding inaccurate information in burial records, Scott Warner of Canton, Ohio, had grown concerned that his son might be interred in the wrong place and asked that his body be exhumed.

The exhumation, held under a brilliant blue sky shortly after 8 a.m., came after the cemetery discovered last month that two sets of remains had been buried in the wrong place. On Wednesday morning, Army spokesman Gary Tallman said three sets of remains had been involved in that mix-up but revised his statement later, saying he had been provided incomplete information by Army officials.

Warner said he lost faith in the cemetery's leadership after the Army's inspector general released a report in June that found widespread record-keeping problems at the nation's most important military burial site, including 211 mislabeled or unmarked grave sites and at least four burial urns that had been dug up and dumped in a pile of excess dirt.

That report has also shaken the confidence of veterans organizations, which have called for supervision of the cemetery -- the final resting place of two presidents, 11 Supreme Court justices, and service members from every war and major conflict in U.S. history -- to be taken away from the Army Department and transferred to the Department of Veterans Affairs. The VA operates several military cemeteries, all of which have been converted to digitized record-keeping. Arlington still relies on paper records.

After the report was released, Warner demanded proof from the cemetery that his son was in the correct spot. But the paperwork provided by the cemetery had inaccuracies that made him doubt the location of his son's remains, he said. He said he had no choice but to exhume his son.

Shortly after the cemetery opened Wednesday, Warner and his wife, Melissa, were flanked by a small group of friends and relatives and a priest as they made their way to their son's grave site. Two reporters were also invited by the family to attend.

A backhoe had already opened their son's grave. Tallman said that process included pumping water out of the plot, which, like many grave sites at Arlington, rests below the water table.

Heath Warner's headstone lay on the ground at the head of the freshly dug rectangular hole. Nearby, headstones were covered with green plastic garbage bins for protection.

When the family was in place by the grave site, the backhoe lifted off a large concrete slab covering the coffin. Then a cemetery worker lowered himself into the hole and emerged with an identification tag that had been affixed to the coffin. He handed it to an Army colonel, who rubbed off the dirt and handed it to the Warners.

They nodded their heads, indicating that it identified their son.

Then the workers placed harnesses on either end of the coffin that attached to the arm of the backhoe, which began to pull the casket out of the ground. It came up slowly, covered in dirt, and emerged over the lip of the hole at a tilt.

Softly, the priest said a prayer: "Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted."

After it was pulled from the ground, the coffin was placed on a flatbed truck, covered in an American flag and taken to a cinder-block building in a maintenance area of the cemetery.

Scott Warner and a young Marine who was a friend of Heath Warner's entered the building to make the identification. When they emerged a half-hour later, Scott Warner said, "It's him," to his wife, who embraced him.

"I can breathe," Melissa Warner said. "I feel like a ton of bricks have been lifted off my chest."

Because of the severity of Heath Warner's wounds, he had a closed coffin. When he was first killed, his family identified him by a tattoo on his right arm, his father said. On Wednesday, Scott Warner once again identified his son by that tattoo.

He had been fearing that moment, he said, especially after he heard that the cemetery recently learned that two bodies had been buried in the wrong plots.

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

When officials opened his grave, they found that someone else's remains had been interred there, Tallman said. The cemetery found the sergeant in another plot, his wife said in an interview. Tallman declined to explain how the mix-up occurred. In the four months since the report was released, the Army has also declined to make Army Secretary John McHugh or Kathryn Condon, who was appointed to fix the problems at Arlington, available for an interview.

"When I heard the first disinterment was not positive, it gave me a sick feeling," Scott Warner said. "But now I'm relieved."

Once his son's remains were positively identified, cemetery officials took them to the mortuary and placed them in a new coffin. Heath Warner was reburied at noon in the same plot.

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