Arlington cemetery mix-ups estimated in the thousands
Former site official says some errors were to be expected
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.