Mystery involving Arlington grave sites grows

The situation at Arlington affected three grave sites and is the clearest evidence yet of the cemetery's record-keeping problems.
The situation at Arlington affected three grave sites and is the clearest evidence yet of the cemetery's record-keeping problems. (Katherine Frey)

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By Christian Davenport
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The mystery of missing bodies at the nation's most hallowed military burial ground keeps getting more troubling.

An Army spokesman confirmed last week that two bodies had been buried in the wrong places at Arlington National Cemetery after exhuming their remains last month, but he declined to provide details.

On Monday, Gary Tallman, the spokesman, painted a more detailed picture of the situation affecting three grave sites at the cemetery, where two presidents and 11 Supreme Court justices are buried:

One site, Plot 1180 in Section 66, had a headstone but no remains.

The neighboring site, Plot 1181, contained a body but the wrong headstone.

The next site over, Plot 1182, held two sets of remains, only one of which matched the headstone.

The mix-ups are the clearest evidence yet that the cemetery's record-keeping problems, which were revealed in an Army inspector general's report released in June, have led to people being buried in the wrong places. The inspector general investigation found 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.

After news of the report broke, retired Air Force Col. William C. Koch Jr. called the cemetery's hotline to ask whether the remains of his wife, Jean, were buried where they were supposed to be, he said in an interview.

The cemetery assured him that everything was in order, and Koch said he was relieved. But last month, the cemetery called back. Officials were very sorry, he recalled them saying, but his wife's coffin was found one grave over to the right in a plot that had been marked by a headstone for an Army staff sergeant. His wife's plot, they said, was empty.

Cemetery officials opened the graves last month after the staff sergeant's wife grew concerned that his remains had been interred in the wrong place. Even though cemetery officials assured her that her husband was in the correct grave, she wasn't convinced and asked them to dig, as The Washington Post documented in an article last week. The staff sergeant's wife spoke to The Post on the condition of anonymity because she feared news of Arlington's mistakes would mar her husband's name.

Army officials then had a mystery on their hands: If the staff sergeant wasn't in the plot that bore his headstone, where was he? After consulting their records, Arlington officials thought he was in the next grave over, which was troubling because that grave was marked by a headstone for Sally Rippert, the wife of a retired Navy commander.


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