Arlington Cemetery execs brief senator on reforms
Friday, November 4, 2011
By MATTHEW BARAKAT
ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) — A painstaking review of nearly 260,000 grave markers at Arlington National Cemetery has so far revealed no further evidence of misplaced or misidentified gravesites like the ones that led the Army to oust the cemetery’s top management last year, cemetery officials said in a briefing Friday.
Still, the cemetery has found tens of thousands of lesser discrepancies between the information on headstones and supporting paperwork, requiring review by a team of research analysts and, in some cases, replacement of headstones to fix the error.
The cemetery provided the briefing to Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who chairs a subcommittee that has investigated what McCaskill and others have called widespread mismanagement at the cemetery. An Army inspector general report last year revealed that more than 200 gravesites were potentially mislabeled or misplaced inside the cemetery. Subsequent investigation determined those were largely paperwork errors as opposed to having actual bodies in the wrong place.
McCaskill said Friday that she is encouraged by the thoroughness of the Army’s fact-checking process, in which members of the Army’s Old Guard — its official ceremonial unit — were sent to the cemetery over the summer to photograph every marker at the cemetery with iPhones, and build an electronic database to replace what had largely been a system of paper records.
“Most important, I know going forward that we’re not going to have this problem again” because of the systems being put in place at the cemetery by its new leadership team, said McCaskill, who had been one of the cemetery’s most outspoken critics.
Still, Friday’s briefing showed the depth of the problems the Army is confronting as it seeks to rectify past mistakes. Roughly one in four of the grave markers checked so far has shown some type of discrepancy between the headstone and the supporting paperwork, officials said. Those problems include misspelled names, mistaken religious affiliations or improperly identified military rank, or mistakes on a person’s date of birth or date of death
That doesn’t mean that all of those discrepancies represent mistakes. In some cases, the discrepancies reflect past practices that are no longer followed. In the 1920s and 1930s, for instance, it was common to not include a spouse’s name on a headstone, even when the spouse was buried next to a loved one, officials said.
Or the headstone could be completely accurate and the only mistake is a typo on an internal document that was never seen by the public. Still, the hiccups require follow-up by a team of 70 analysts sorting through all of the paperwork in advance of a December deadline to file a congressionally mandated report on the cemetery’s progress in fixing past mistakes.
Col. John Schrader, co-chair of a gravesite accountability task force, told McCaskill that the group has completed 86 percent of its work so far, and has not come across any of the “Who is buried where?” problems that captured headlines in 2009 and 2010.
Cemetery officials have tapped Army expertise across the country to update and improve their records. Analytics experts built the software to create a detailed electronic database that replaces the typewritten paper records. Geospatial experts have conducted flyovers of the cemetery to create detailed maps that can be used to show electronically where people are buried and which gravesites are still available.
McCaskill, who had previously suggested that authority over the cemetery should be transferred from the Army to the Department of Veterans affairs, said Friday that she now feels comfortable with the Army continuing to operate the cemetery.