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Some Arlington markers may need replacement

Some Arlington markers may need replacement

December 23rd, 2011 in News

ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) - Thousands of grave markers at Arlington National Cemetery may need to be replaced or added to accurately account for the dead, following a meticulous Army review of each of the nearly 260,000 headstones and niche covers on the grounds.

In a report to Congress on Thursday, the Army found potential discrepancies between headstones and cemetery paperwork on about 64,000 grave markers - about one in four.

Congress ordered the review last year following reports of misidentified and misplaced graves that led to the ouster of the cemetery's top executives.

The report found no further evidence of misplaced graves, though it cautioned that its review is not complete and that some errors could have gone undetected.

There are potentially thousands of minor errors, including misspelled names, or incorrect military ranks and dates of birth and death.

The Army compared information on every headstone to its internal records, scouring handwritten logs of the dead from the Civil War and a hodgepodge of other records to verify accuracy.

In an interview, the cemetery's executive director, Kathryn Condon, said reviews are ongoing and it's premature to try to estimate exactly how many headstones may need replacement.

To be sure, many of the 64,000 discrepancies will turn up no problem with a headstone - it may be as simple as a typo on an internal record. And in many cases, the discrepancies are not errors at all but reflect past practices at the cemetery that are now considered outdated.

One of the biggest surprises uncovered by the review was that in most of the early 20th century, the cemetery did not include the name of a wife on a headstone when she was buried next to her husband. Under current practices, the name of the spouse is etched onto the back of the headstone.

Condon said the cemetery will correct that by adding the spouse's name to the gravesite. She said it is not only the right thing to do but is also required by law.

Accounting for the forgotten spouses alone will require thousands of corrections, officials said. In some cases, replacement headstones will be made. In cases where the headstones are considered historic, footstones will be added.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who was critical of the old management team and has been supportive of Condon's reform efforts, said the cemetery "is now a turnaround story. After we uncovered chronic managerial failure and demanded comprehensive reforms from a new leadership team, I am pleased to receive this report that shows great progress and lays out a plan to finish the job."

But Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., said the report "raises more questions than it answers," particularly with the ultimate disposition of those 64,000 discrepancies. He said that while Condon has worked hard to improve management at the cemetery, he is not convinced that the cemetery has fixed its data-management problems. Warner had asked a consortium of northern Virginia technology companies to help the cemetery get a data-management plan in place, and he wants further assurances that the Army took the help that was offered on a pro bono basis.

The Army and a team of 70 analysts are undertaking painstaking reviews of every case where they find a potential discrepancy to ensure that records are made accurate. Those reviews are expected to be completed in the summer.

The process began with a hand count, using simple mechanical clickers, of every gravesite - 259,978 to be exact. (More than 300,000 people are buried at Arlington, but some grave markers have two or more names.) Then, during the summer, members of the Army's ceremonial Old Guard unit used iPhones to photograph the front and back of every headstone, so the information could be compared against internal records.