Senate bill calls for every grave at Arlington cemetery to be accounted for

Dysfunctional management, misplaced remains and contracting problems have been found in investigations into Arlington Cemetery.
By Christian Davenport
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 28, 2010; 10:53 PM

The secretary of the Army would have to provide Congress with a full accounting of all of the more than 320,000 grave sites at Arlington National Cemetery under a Senate bill introduced Tuesday.

The bill, which comes on the heels of a growing scandal at the nation's most hallowed military burial ground, would also require a review of the contracts issued to digitize the cemetery's paper records and a study to determine whether the cemetery should be transferred to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

In a statement, Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.), who introduced the legislation with Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), said the bill would "make sure that those responsible for managing the cemetery are being held accountable and meeting the highest standards when it comes to ensuring the proper burials of America's fallen men and women."

The cemetery's top two leaders - former superintendent John C. Metzler Jr. and his deputy, Thurman Higginbotham - were ousted in June but allowed to retire with full benefits after an Army inspector general's report found more than 200 unmarked or mislabeled graves in three of the cemetery's 70 sections. It also found that at least four burial urns had been dug up and dumped in a dirt pile.

The cemetery's new leadership has said that because of poor record-keeping and dysfunctional management, there could be many more problems throughout the cemetery.

The bill also calls for a review of whether the cemetery is adequately communicating with families whose loved ones are buried at Arlington.

Arlington officials assured two families that their relatives were buried in the correct spot only to later discover that was not the case.

The cemetery discovered the problems last month after one of the family members asked that her husband's grave site be opened despite those assurances. When they did, cemetery officials found that one grave site was empty, another contained a set of remains that didn't match the headstone and another had two sets of remains, only one of which jibed with the headstone. The mix-ups have since been remedied.

The inspector general's report also found that the cemetery still relies on an antiquated paper-record system even though it had spent millions of dollars on contracts to build a digital database.

If the bill were enacted, Army Secretary John McHugh would have one year to specify whether every grave site at Arlington is "correctly identified, labeled and occupied." If graves are found to have problems, the Army would have to detail its plan to fix them.

Army officials did not return an e-mail seeking comment.

Since the inspector general's report, some veterans organizations have called for the VA, which runs 131 cemeteries nationwide with 3 million graves, to take over management of the cemetery.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company