Scope of burial mistakes at Arlington is a mystery

By Christian Davenport
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 25, 2010; 6:28 PM

Arlington National Cemetery officials said they are making progress in rectifying the problems with more than 200 gravesites identified in an Army Inspector General's report by verifying the paperwork, using ground-penetrating radar, and, in a few cases, digging up graves with a backhoe.

But even though it has been four months since the report was released, many of the record-keeping issues remain unresolved, the full scope of the problems at the nation's premier military cemetery is not yet known, and the cemetery's leadership cannot say how long it will take to fix the situation.

In a statement, Kathryn Condon, the newly appointed executive director of the Army National Cemeteries Program, said cemetery officials "are working diligently each and every day to correct the mistakes made in the past and restore the dignity and honor our nation's heroes deserve."

The IG report, released in June, detailed a chaotic management system at the cemetery, poor record-keeping and discrepancies between burial maps and what was actually in place.

Investigators found that 117 gravesites without headstones were marked as occupied on cemetery maps; 94 others, with corresponding headstones, were marked as empty on the maps.

The graves with headstones have been easier to verify because officials can use the name to pull the paperwork, which consists of a record of interment, a gravesite card that details where in the cemetery the deceased is buried, and an intake form used for scheduling funerals. In all 94 cases, the paperwork has verified that the right people are in the correct burial plots, spokeswoman Kaitlin Horst said Friday evening in the cemetery's most comprehensive update so far.

But given the widespread problems with the cemetery's record-keeping system - it still uses paper records despite millions of dollars spent to go digital - the cemetery also has been using ground-penetrating radar. The radar could help verify that a set of remains is present, but it will not help with identification.

Army Secretary John McHugh has said that officials were prepared to dig up graves, open coffins and take DNA samples from the deceased if it is necessary to sort out the records. To do that, Army regulations require a court order, or consent from "all close relatives."

Cemetery officials have not been able to find any burial records that would indicate people are buried in the 117 plots that the maps say are occupied but have no headstone.

Officials have opened five of those graves. In all five cases, the sites were empty, Horst said. The cemetery will continue to open those graves, and if they are vacant, officials will use them for future funerals.

The problems detailed in the IG report were from three of the cemetery's 70 sections. Investigators could find many more problems as they widen their probe beyond sections 59, 65 and 66, officials have said.

In August, cemetery officials discovered that one gravesite in Section 66 was vacant even though it had a headstone, another had the wrong body in it and a third had two sets of remains, only one of which matched the headstone.

Cemetery officials opened the graves after the wife of an Army staff sergeant grew concerned that his remains had been interred in the wrong place. His grave was not among the 211 the IG investigators had flagged.

Cemetery officials had thought that the paperwork was in order, and because of that they assured her that her husband was in the correct grave. She was not convinced, however, and asked them to dig. When they opened the grave, they found the remains of someone else.

On Friday, Horst said that cemetery officials reviewed burial records and came to think the staff sergeant could have been buried in another section. When they opened that grave, they found a wooden coffin, which could not have belonged to the staff sergeant because his was metal.

They then checked the gravesite next to the one marked by the staff sergeant's headstone. There, they found two sets of remains: the staff sergeant's coffin and, above it, an urn containing the remains of the wife of a retired Navy commander.

Since the IG report was released, two other families with relatives whose ashes were placed in the cemetery's columbarium asked that their niches be opened, Horst said. In both cases, the remains were in the correct place.

Another family expressed concern that an urn was buried at the wrong depth. When cemetery officials checked, they found that the urn was two feet down instead of three. The urn was reburied at the correct depth, Horst said. She did not say why the family had suspected a problem.

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