Ar­ling­ton ceme­tery mix-ups es­ti­mated in the thou­sands

For­mer site of­fi­cial says some er­rors were to be ex­pected

Austin American-Statesman - - WORLD & NATION - By Ju­lia Love

WASHINGTON — The es­ti­mate of pos­si­bly mis­han­dled graves at Ar­ling­ton Na­tional Ceme­tery soared into the thou­sands Thurs­day, and ousted ceme­tery of­fi­cials con­ceded that they knew about prob­lems at least five years ago.

A Se­nate re­port re­leased Thurs­day said that 4,900 to 6,600 graves among the 330,000 vet­er­ans and oth­ers buried at Ar­ling­ton may be un­marked, im­prop­erly marked or mis­la­beled on ceme­tery maps.

An Army sur­vey re­leased in June of three of the ceme­tery’s 70 sec­tions re­vealed 211 mis­han­dled graves. The Se­nate re­port reached the larger fig­ure by pro­ject­ing the er­ror rate onto the en­tire ceme­tery.

Kathryn Con­don, who was ap­pointed ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Army Na­tional Ceme­ter­ies Pro­gram af­ter the scan­dal erupted, said the Army still does not have a com­plete count of burial er­rors.

“I am con­fi­dent there are prob­a­bly other map er­rors,” she said.

At a hear­ing of a Se­nate Home­land Se­cu­rity and Gov­ern­men­tal Af­fairs sub­com­mit­tee, Chair­woman Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., ac­cused ceme­tery of­fi­cials of “cat­a­strophic in­com­pe­tence.”

“Waste, abuse, fraud — we’ve got the tri­fecta, and we have it con­cern­ing a na­tional trea­sure,” she said.

For­mer ceme­tery su­per­in­ten­dent John Met­zler and deputy su­per­in­ten­dent Thur­man Hig­gin­botham were sub­poe­naed to at­tend the hear­ing. Both re­tired this month.

Hig­gin­botham an­swered ba­sic ques­tions but in­voked his Fifth Amend­ment right to avoid self-in­crim­i­na­tion when asked about his role in ceme­tery con­tracts.

“It was al­ways con­cep­tual that any­thing done by hand A Se­nate re­port re­leased Thurs­day said that as many as 6,600 graves at Ar­ling­ton Na­tional Ceme­tery might be un­marked, im­prop­erly marked or mis­la­beled on ceme­tery maps. for 40-plus years, that there would have to be some er­rors some­where,” he said.

Met­zler ac­cepted re­spon­si­bil­ity for the scan­dal but said he grap­pled with staff and bud­get cuts for years.

“There is no sub­sti­tute for hav­ing ded­i­cated staff in ar­eas of par­tic­u­lar im­por­tance,” he said. “We were hold­ing onto the ba­sic func­tion of bury­ing the dead, and ev­ery­thing else was con­tracted out.”

With min­i­mal over­sight, ceme­tery of­fi­cials awarded up to $8 mil­lion on con­tracts to dig­i­tize burial records, ac­cord­ing to the sub­com­mit­tee re­port. The ceme­tery has lit­tle to show for the in­vest­ment to­day, with most burial records still cat­a­logued on note cards.

The Depart­ment of Vet­er­ans Af­fairs, which man­ages 131 other ceme­ter­ies, be­gan dig­i­tiz­ing buri­als in the mid1990s with a sys­tem that cost $1.2 mil­lion and took about two years to im­ple­ment, ac­cord­ing to the sub­com­mit­tee re­port.

An Air Force study showed the VA sys­tem could be repli­cated at Ar­ling­ton, and the VA even of­fered to help, ac­cord­ing to the re­port. But Ar­ling­ton of­fi­cials in­sisted on build­ing their own costly sys­tem and did not bring up the Air Force re­port when mak­ing their case for fund­ing.

Met­zler said an in­spec­tor gen­eral find­ing that more than 100 graves lacked a head­stone or burial card was not en­tirely ac­cu­rate and that it was mostly in­ter­nal work­ing maps used by ceme­tery em­ploy­ees that were mis­la­beled.

He also said any prob­lems that came up over the years were quickly fixed and sug­gested he was sur­prised by the Army’s find­ings. His tes­ti­mony an­gered and con­fused law­mak­ers.

“The no­tion that you would come in here and act like you didn’t know about it un­til a month ago is of­fen­sive. You did know about it, and you did noth­ing,” McCaskill said.

Jacquelyn Martin

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