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Published: 6/18/2010

Arlington National Cemetary finds stray headstones

BLADE NEWS SERVICES

ARLINGTON, Va. - Several mud-caked headstones line the banks of a small stream at Arlington National Cemetery, the country's most venerated burial ground. Farther upstream in a wooded area, a few others lie submerged with the rocks that line the stream bed.

This week, after The Washington Post alerted the cemetery to their presence, officials there said they were shocked to find the gravestones lying in the muck near a maintenance yard. Under fire for more than 200 unmarked or misidentified graves and a dysfunctional management system, cemetery officials vowed to investigate the headstones along the stream and take "immediate corrective action," Kaitlin Horst, a cemetery spokesman, said.

Officials said they do not know how the stones got there, whom they belong to, or how old they are. Ms. Horst could say only that "they appear to be decades old."

Were they used to prevent stream erosion? Were they engraved incorrectly and discarded? Or were they intended for a landfill - where thousands of weathered or damaged burial markers were sent years ago - and ended up in the mud instead?

One of the headstones offers some clues. It has a cross in a circle at the top, a design that Ms. Horst said was discontinued in the late 1980s. And there is writing. It is worn and faded but seems to identify the person as a Navy captain, whose name is something like J. Warren McLaughlin or L. Warren McLaughel?

Cemetery officials said they do not know, but they vowed to research their records.

The stream runs under Ord & Weitzel Drive in the cemetery's northwest corner across from Section 28. Some of the headstones, stacked in pairs along the stream, are visible from the road. Others are farther upstream, under a dense canopy of trees.

The discovery follows an investigation of the cemetery by the Army's inspector general, which found 117 graves that are marked on maps as occupied on but have no headstones. The inquiry found 94 more marked on maps as unoccupied even though they have gravestones. The investigation also found that at least four burial urns were unearthed and dumped in an area where excess dirt is kept.

As a result of the scandal, the Army reprimanded Superintendent John Metzler, who is retiring July 2, and his deputy, Thurman Higginbotham, who was placed on administrative leave pending a disciplinary review.

Army Secretary John McHugh appointed a new team to oversee cemetery operations and continue the investigation, which officials said could find even more unmarked grave sites.

Joe Davis, a spokesman for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said he was "stunned" to learned about the discarded headstones.

"Arlington National Cemetery is truly hallowed ground to this entire nation," he said. "It is an honor to be buried at Arlington. It is an honor to work at Arlington. And over the past week, we're finding out that people are just not doing their jobs."

Ms. Horst said that the cemetery's new superintendent, Patrick Hallinan, a longtime cemetery official with the Department of Veterans Affairs, checked out the streamside headstones and ordered their removal.

"They will reclaim the stones and dispose of them properly in accordance with our current headstone-disposal policy," she said.

Headstones are replaced if they are damaged or if the writing on them becomes illegible, she said. At one time, gravestones were discarded in landfills. The cemetery ended that practice because Washington area residents were plucking the stones and using them for patios, driveways, and other home improvement projects. Under the current disposal policy, headstones are to be ground up so the names cannot be recognized and recycled.



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