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Arlington National Cemetery failings prompt sharp reactions

By JEFF SCHOGOL | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 11, 2010

ARLINGTON, Va. — For Ami Neiberger-Miller and others with loved ones buried at Arlington National Cemetery, news that at least 211 people are in unmarked or unrecorded graves there hit close to home.

Her brother, Army Spc. Christopher Neiberger, is buried in Arlington’s Section 60 and other family members are buried elsewhere at the cemetery.

“I think anyone would be concerned and alarmed,” she said Friday. “I appreciate that the Army came forward with this information and talked about it in such an open way and that the secretary of the Army actually apologized to surviving families for this.”

On Thursday, Army officials announced the findings of an investigation into Arlington that found remains buried in graves listed as empty, unmarked graves and improperly handled cremated remains. The report noted problems with at least 211 graves.

“There could in fact be more,” said Lt. Gen. R. Steven Whitcomb, Army Inspector General.

The inspection found that 117 grave sites marked as occupied on maps did not have headstones.An additional 94 grave sites were supposedly unoccupied, but each had a headstone. And some grave sites were not on maps at all.

Retiring Arlington Superintendent John Metzler “acknowledged that map inaccuracies were a systemic problem, but evidence indicated he failed to adequately inquire into these discrepancies to ensure they were properly resolved,” the report said.

The report also said at least four urns were discovered in a pile of dirt used to fill graves. One was re-buried as an “unknown” because it had no markings on it.

Spokeswoman Kaitlin Horst told The Associated Press that 100 people phoned in the first two hours Friday, after the historic burial ground opened a special call center for families of the 300,000 military veterans, war casualties and other dignitaries buried there.

Army Secretary John McHugh’s voice wavered as he offered an apology Thursday for the problems that the inspection uncovered.

“As to the negative findings of the report, there is simply no excuse,” he said. “And on behalf of the United States Army and on behalf of myself, 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.”

The House Armed Services Committee will conduct its own investigation into problems at Arlington, according to a news release from committee chairman Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo.

“Arlington National Cemetery is a sacred shrine and it breaks my heart to learn about mismarked grave sites, mishandling of remains, missing documentation and failures to notify next-of-kin,” Skelton said in a news release. “This conduct is disgraceful and cannot be tolerated.”

The news drew swift condemnation from veterans groups.

“It’s shocking,” said Joe Davis, a spokesman for Veterans of Foreign Wars whose parents are buried at Arlington.

Davis said he is confident the Army will fix the problems, but he noted it’s hard to believe that these problems date back to 1997 and were allowed to continue.

“These sorts of careless and avoidable errors dishonor the sacrifices of those laid to rest at Arlington, and they’re deeply hurtful to the families left to mourn,” said AMVETS National Commander Duane J. Miskulin in a news release. “To surviving veterans, these kinds of oversights are offensive, which is why we must work to ensure that all such errors are uncovered and similar mistakes are never made again.”

The American Legion was disturbed that “our nation’s heroes are treated in such an undignified manner,” Legion National Commander Clarence E. Hill said in a statement.

“The findings in the report are quite serious but [Army] Secretary [John] McHugh is to be commended for taking decisive action to correct what he called ‘dysfunctional management.’”

McHugh has vowed to fix the problems uncovered by the report.

The Army has named Kathryn Condon as the new executive director to oversee management at Army cemeteries and address the problems raised by the report.

Metzler is receiving a reprimand and his benefits could be reduced, McHugh said.

Metzler’s deputy, Thurman Higginbotham, is on administrative leave “pending the completion of other personnel actions.”

jeffrey.schogol@stripes.osd.mil

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