For first time in decades, Arlington National Cemetery must bury multiple 'unknowns'

Kathryn Condon says the cemetery is working to repair its problems.
Kathryn Condon says the cemetery is working to repair its problems. (Bill O'leary)

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 7, 2011

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.


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