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Published: Friday, 6/11/2010

Arlington national cemetery Army fires supervisors after burial error reports

BLADE NEWS SERVICES

ARLINGTON, Va. - The Army ousted the top supervisors of Arlington National Cemetery in the wake of a blistering report that raised questions of the burial ground's management and found that some graves had been mismarked, top officials announced Thursday.

Army Secretary John McHugh said the report by the Army inspector general raised questions about 211 grave sites and found unmarked graves, burial sites with the wrong headstones, and improper handling of cremated remains.

"That all ends today," Mr. McHugh said.

"I deeply apologize to the families of the honored fallen resting in that hallowed ground who may now question the care afforded to their loved ones," he said.

An Army report listed dozens of deficiencies in the day-to-day management of the cemetery, including an outdated recordkeeping system that may have contributed to many of the errors at Arlington, which was first desig-nated for military burials in 1864.

Lt. Gen. Steven Whitcomb, the Army's inspector general, said most of the mismarked graves were in Sections 59, 65, and 66. Section 59 includes the graves of Marines killed in a 1983 bombing in Beirut.

General Whitcomb found only one incident involving personnel killed in Iraq or Afghanistan. In that instance, two grave markers had been switched.

There are 330,000 people buried at Arlington, one of the country's most venerated cemeteries. Two former presidents, John F. Kennedy and William Howard Taft, are among those buried there. Up to 30 funerals are held there each day, some for veterans of past wars and others for military personnel killed in Afghanistan or Iraq.

The extent of the problems was not entirely clear. In some cases, grave markers had been knocked over and not properly replaced. Other cases entailed poor record keeping. Arlington National Cemetery still uses paper to track those buried there, despite millions of dollars it has paid to contractors to computerize its records.

When pressed to explain how the mistakes could have happened, General Whitcomb said, for example, that a lawn mower might have damaged a headstone that was then removed but never replaced, leading cemetery staff to believe the grave was unoccupied.

"Clearly we found nothing that was intentional, criminal intent, or intended sloppiness that caused this," he said.

Correcting errors at grave sites may require disinterring remains or using X-ray machines to detect whether remains are present in unmarked sites, General Whitcomb said.

General Whitcomb said there was no indication that there had been mistakes at the point of burial.

However, in one incident described in the report, a cremation urn with the remains of an Air Force master sergeant, who served in Vietnam and died in 2007, was buried on the site of a casket of an Army staff sergeant.

The report also found that some cremation urns were mistakenly disinterred and moved to an area of the cemetery where excess dirt was held. One such set of remains had to be reburied as "unknown" because there were no marks on the urn.

Explaining how gravesites could be disturbed, General Whitcomb said that cremated remains often have been removed to accommodate the burial of another family member at the same site, a practice that is allowed. However, the urns in some cases later were improperly handled by cemetery workers or officials.

The problems at Arlington were raised in a series of reports by the online magazine Salon and in other publications.

Mr. McHugh appointed Kathryn Condon, a senior Army civilian official, to serve in a new position, executive director of the Army National Cemeteries program. Mr. McHugh also announced the formation of the Army National Cemeteries Advisory Commission to advise in the oversight of the burial ground. Two former U.S. senators, Robert Dole, a World War II veteran, and Max Cleland, a Vietnam War veteran, will help form the commission, Mr. McHugh said.

Respect for the country's war dead is a top military priority, an Obama Administration spokesman said.

"We have no more solemn commitment than to respect the service and the memory of those that died in service to preserving our freedom as a country," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said.

Some veterans groups reacted to the report with anger and disappointment. Paul Rieckhoff, the founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said members of his organization were "concerned and outraged" by the findings.

John Metzler, the cemetery superintendent, announced last month he intended to retire on July 2. His exit, officials said, was the result of pressure from Army officials. Mr. McHugh made public a brutal letter of reprimand filed against Mr. Metzler. In the letter, Mr. McHugh held Mr. Metzler responsible for the problems and for systemic shortcomings that went on for years.

Mr. Metzler's deputy, Thurman Higgenbotham, was also stripped of responsibility.



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