By Christian Davenport
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 7, 2011; 12:43 AM
When the remains of a Vietnam War soldier buried in the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery were identified in 1998 using DNA, Pentagon officials proudly said that the days of interring service members as "Unknown" could well be over.
But now, for the first time in decades, the cemetery has multiple "unknowns" to bury - and it has itself to blame.
Criminal investigators looking into how eight sets of cremated remains ended up crowding a single grave have concluded that three of them are unidentifiable - not because of the brutality of combat, but because of actions at the cemetery.
The discovery of the mass grave in October came on the heels of a report by the Army Inspector General last summer that revealed widespread problems at the nation's premier military burial ground: unmarked and mismarked graves, millions of dollars wasted in botched contracts to computerize its paper records, and at least four urns found in a pile of excess dirt.
The scandal led to the ouster of the cemetery's top two leaders and prompted legislation from Congress requiring the cemetery to account for every single one of the more than 320,000 remains entombed at the nearly 150-year-old cemetery.
But in her first extended interview since the scandal at Arlington broke, Kathryn Condon, the recently appointed director of the Army Cemeteries Program, said that it will take years to fully survey the cemetery and that officials probably will never be able to account for every grave.
"It's really not possible," she said, noting the age of some of the graves and records. "All we can do is account for the record-keeping and the logs that were given in the Civil War."
But Condon said the cemetery has launched an ambitious effort to repair its problems.
It is boosting its staff from 102 employees to 159, hiring additional funeral representatives, technology experts and ground crew members. It is buying more burial and landscaping equipment, such as hand-held tampers to level graves, which previously had been done with backhoes, she said.
"They didn't have the proper equipment to do the job really to the standard they needed to do," Condon said.
To prevent burial mix-ups, there is a new chain-of-custody procedure that guides the handling of remains. The cemetery has also trained 16 employees as contracting representatives. It previously did not have anyone sufficiently trained, and millions of dollars were spent on a botched attempt to digitize the cemetery's records.
Officials have begun creating a master database that eventually would replace the flawed maps that have been used to chart Arlington's 70 sections for decades. The cemetery has detailed aerial photographs of the sections, and plans to gather pictures of the front and back of every headstone. Officials would then match the photos with the cemetery's burial records to find, and then fix, the discrepancies that Condon said would inevitably emerge.
In its report released in June, the Inspector General found that 117 graves that were marked on cemetery maps as occupied had no headstone and that 94 others that had headstones were marked as vacant. Since then, the cemetery has determined that all of the plots with no headstones were vacant or obstructed by trees, she said, and burial records have shown that those with headstones wrongly marked vacant were in fact occupied by the right people. A review of the records was definitive, she said, so there was no need to open the graves and take DNA samples, a step that Army Secretary John McHugh has said would be considered.
As the cemetery works to account for every grave, Condon said it would certainly find more problems: "There will be discrepancies."
The Army's Criminal Investigation Division continues to probe how the eight urns came to occupy a single grave.
The grave, plot 5253 in Section 69, was supposed to hold only one set of remains, an urn that had been found by a cemetery worker in a dirt pile in 2002. It was buried as "Unknown" because cemetery officials could not determine to whom it belonged. The discovery of the urn and its subsequent burial were first reported by Salon.com in 2009.
In October, Condon spoke with a contractor who in 2005 had found another discarded urn, which, in addition to unidentified remains, contained a letter and a picture of a girl in a blue and white cheerleading uniform. He reported it to his supervisor at the time, who turned the urn over to cemetery officials.
Learning about this incident for the first time, Condon said she "called in pertinent members of the staff to my office and said, 'Does anyone have any information they can fill me in on?' "
A grounds crew member stepped forward, saying, "Ma'am, I know where there is a gravesite where there is more than one interred."
He led them to the grave in Section 69 where the urn found in 2002 had been buried as "Unknown."
As investigators starting digging through the grave by hand, they came across one set of cremated remains. They found another. When they found a third, Condon said, she "looked at my attorney and said, 'Get CID' " - the Army's Criminal Investigative Division.
After eight hours of digging, they found a total of eight sets of cremated remains. The original "Unknown" urn was recertified as unidentifiable and reburied in the Section 69 grave. Shortly after the mass grave was found, investigators were able to identify three of the other sets of remains. On Friday, Christopher Grey, a CID spokesman, said the agency had determined that three others were unidentifiable. The remains were being held at the cemetery while the criminal probe continues, so it is unclear when they will be reburied.
Investigators were trying to determine the identity of the last set of remains, those found by the contractor in 2005 with the photo of the cheerleader.
"The bottom line is, we will do everything we can to identify the final set of cremated remains," Grey said. "But we may never know who those remains belonged to."