Restoring Arlington Cemetery

Monday, December 27, 2010; A14

WHAT DOES IT MEAN to restore accountability in the nation's cemetery?

Six months ago Arlington National Cemetery was in turmoil as reports surfaced of mismarked graves, discrepancies in accounting and recordkeeping, and headstones found in streams. Hundreds of calls poured in from family members of fallen servicemen and women, demanding answers and expressing concern about the integrity of the final resting places of their loved ones.

Much has changed since. But much work still remains.

One problem that plagued Arlington was a broken leadership structure plagued by mistrust and deception. Lack of ability and accountability cast a long shadow. Many employees failed to receive anything beyond on-the-job training, and the workforce lacked sufficient depth even for employees to be able to attend off-site seminars on operating machinery. Millions of dollars spent to digitize records generated useless image files.

Given the wide range of problems, the recent discovery of eight urns in a single grave, while deeply regrettable, is not entirely surprising. Arlington has acted responsibly by beginning a criminal probe to identify the misplaced fallen and determine whose action led to this situation.

To restore the nation's confidence, continued efforts to improve the way things are done at Arlington, through technology, transparency and the establishment of clear protocols, will be necessary. Already, steps have been taken to improve the workplace culture and establish clear protocols for marking burial sites. That such fundamental measures were not in place before suggests the extent of the problem.

Arlington Cemetery continues to make funerals for fallen service members its first priority. This has always taken precedence at the cemetery, even in times when its other missions of recordkeeping and grounds maintenance were being shortchanged. It is critical that the cemetery and its staff make certain that accountability is established and that past mistakes are not repeated. Accountability does not mean identifying every single grave site - the cemetery has been in use since the Civil War, and variations in burial practice, the effects of time and erosion, and many other factors would make this task absurd and impossible. Rather, it means developing a clear understanding of past failures and moving forward with improved technology for accurate recordkeeping and scheduling, sufficient training, and established areas of responsibility.

With assistance from high-tech companies in Northern Virginia, Arlington is beginning to move toward an IT structure capable of meeting the demands of the nation's largest military cemetery. Arlington still relies on manual recordkeeping; going forward, it should consider technology available in the private sector before creating an entirely new system.

Those who work at Arlington have made headway in improving operations, but the nation's confidence in its national cemetery won't be restored overnight. This process demands continued forthrightness from those in charge of Arlington and continued oversight.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company