Law­maker wants full Ar­ling­ton grave sur­vey; Army says it will com­ply

Austin American-Statesman - - WORLD & NATION - By Michael E. Ruane

WASHINGTON — The sec­re­tary of the Army said Wed­nes­day that of­fi­cials were pre­pared to dig up graves, open cas­kets and take DNA sam­ples from the de­ceased if it is nec­es­sary to sort out the record-keep­ing chaos at Ar­ling­ton Na­tional Ceme­tery.

“If we are so au­tho­rized, and if it is nec­es­sary, we have not ruled out the pos­si­bil­ity of ac­tu­ally open­ing cas­kets,” said Army Sec­re­tary John McHugh, not­ing that it would be an ex­treme mea­sure, “and should it there­after be­come nec­es­sary for DNA … that would be some­thing we would con­tem­plate.”

McHugh spoke at a hear­ing of the House Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee called to look into re­cent rev­e­la­tions of mis­man­age­ment, mis­han­dling of re­mains and ex­ten­sive record foul-ups at the nation’s most hal­lowed ceme­tery.

An in­quiry by the Army in­spec­tor gen­eral, un­veiled June 10, found a wide ar­ray of long-stand­ing prob­lems at the ceme­tery.

The Army found 211 dis­crep­an­cies be­tween burial maps and grave sites and cases in which fu­neral urns were in­ad­ver­tently dug up and dumped in a dirt pile.

McHugh said in­ves­ti­ga­tors are dig­ging into some of the 117 sites with­out tomb­stones or burial cards that are marked as oc­cu­pied on ceme­tery maps to see whether any­one is buried there. No names were as­so­ci­ated with the map sites.

Five have been ex­am­ined so far, an Army spokesman said. In each case, “the map was in er­ror,” McHugh said. “There were no re­mains in those graves, and those graves will be re­claimed and reused for ap­pro­pri­ate pur­poses and a fallen hero some­time in the fu­ture.”

The Army also found 94 graves that had tomb­stones and burial cards but were not listed on ceme­tery maps. Twenty-two of those sites have been probed so far and found to be oc­cu­pied, a ceme­tery spokes­woman said.

Com­mit­tee Chair­man Ike Skel­ton, D-Mo., said he thinks a com­plete sur­vey of graves at the ceme­tery should be con­ducted to check for burial mis­takes.

Skel­ton said the Army’s re­cent in­ves­ti­ga­tion into mis­takes at the ceme­tery was so “limited” that it prob­a­bly re­vealed “only a frac­tion of the prob­lem.”

“We must be pre­pared that a 100 per­cent sur­vey of the ceme­tery and all its op­er­a­tions, which I be­lieve must now be un­der­taken, will yield a larger num­ber of prob­lems that must be ad­dressed,” Skel­ton said. “I can­not un­der­stand how the Army has al­lowed the prob­lem to fes­ter for years.”

The Army has fo­cused, so far, on only three of the ceme­tery’s 70 sec­tions. McHugh said a com­plete ceme­tery sur­vey was pos­si­ble but would be dif­fi­cult.

“To do that for 330,000 (graves) is go­ing to take a bet­ter sys­tem of record-keep­ing,” he said. As soon as the ceme­tery’s an­ti­quated records sys­tem is im­proved, “we will be­gin check­ing and cross­check­ing those records for all of those graves.”

In ad­di­tion to the record­keep­ing prob­lems, the in­spec­tor gen­eral found a dys­func­tional man­age­ment sys­tem and a poi­sonous re­la­tion­ship be­tween ceme­tery Su­per­in­ten­dent John Met­zler and Deputy Su­per­in­ten­dent Thur­man Hig­gin­botham.

The two men had been at odds as far back as 1992, the year af­ter Met­zler took over at age 39, said Lt. Gen. Steven Whitcomb, the Army’s in­spec­tor gen­eral, who also tes­ti­fied at the hear­ing.

Met­zler, who had grown up at the ceme­tery while his fa­ther served as su­per­in­ten­dent from 1951 to 1972, was is­sued a se­vere rep­ri­mand by the Army. He is re­tir­ing Fri­day. Hig­gin­botham has been on paid ad­min­is­tra­tive leave pend­ing a dis­ci­plinary re­view.

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