Friday, December 23, 2011

Possible problems with 65,000 graves at Arlington

Possible problems with 65,000 graves at Arlington

After a year-long effort to account for every grave at Arlington National Cemetery, Army officials said Thursday that there might be problems, some as minor as typographical errors in paper records, with nearly 65,000 sites — or one-quarter of the graves at the nation’s most prominent military burial ground.

In a highly anticipated report, mandated by Congress last year after the discovery of misidentified remains, the cemetery cited monumental challenges in completing the task: missing Civil War-era logs, illegible headstones and burial procedures that changed significantly over the 150-year history of the site.

“In a lot of cases, the marker is absolutely right,” said Army Col. John Schrader, the co-chair of the task force. “The service was conducted flawlessly and someone wrote something on a piece of paper wrong.”

Although the review has not yet found additional people buried in the wrong spots, “the discovery of burial errors cannot be ruled out,” the report said.

Congress ordered the accounting after an Army investigation found widespread problems, including mismarked or unmarked graves, urns that had been dug up and dumped on a dirt pile, and millions of dollars wasted on contracts that produced nothing.

Since then, additional problems have been discovered, including a mass grave that held eight sets of cremated remains, prompting a criminal investigation by the FBI and the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division.

The revelations led to the removal of the cemetery’s leadership. A new team, in place since June 2010, has embarked on an ambitious and exceedingly difficult project to document every grave.

An accountability task force has photographed every burial marker and uploaded the information to a database where it was double-checked against more than 500,000 paper records that have been scanned into the system.

So far, the task force has found no problems with 195,748 sites, according to the report. Of the other 64,230 sites, there have been some discrepancies that warrant further review. Arlington officials emphasized that those problems could be minor, such as typos in names or dates of death, and would not necessarily indicate improper burial.

Schrader said it could take an additional six months before the cemetery will be able to get through those cases. The latest review has just begun, he said, and he could not say how severe the problems are.

Questions persist

In an interview, Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), who has been monitoring the progress at Arlington and convened a council of technology companies to help the cemetery digitize its records, said he had hoped for a more complete report.

“We don’t know about this 25 percent — are they typos? Do they have remains in the wrong graves?” he said. “This raises as many questions as it answers.”

But given the age of the cemetery, resolving every discrepancy might be impossible, according to the report, which indicated that there could be additional undetected errors.

“It is important to acknowledge that interment or other errors may well be identified in the future that may not be obvious from the records,” the report said. “If found, the Army is committed to resolving these as quickly as possible.”

Last year, the cemetery faced exactly this dilemma. The paperwork for an Army staff sergeant indicated that he was buried in the correct place. But his wife was not convinced and she demanded that cemetery officials open the grave and check. Only then did they realize that the staff sergeant and two other people were in the wrong spots.

Some of the sections with the most discrepancies date to the Civil War or the 1920s and ’30s, according to the report. Two other sections with the most problems — Section 3, which is near the Tomb of the Unknowns, and Section 12, which is in the middle of the cemetery — are more recent, with the median year of death about 1960.

Large-scale effort

Last year, The Washington Post found that in a section for former slaves and black Civil War soldiers, cemetery maps showed a strip where 70 graves should have been. Today, not a single tombstone is there.

The report acknowledged the problems in that section and older ones like it. “Historically the records and grounds in these sections were not maintained to the same standards as the rest of the cemetery,” it said.

Resolving some of the problems has taken much effort. In one case, the cemetery found a grave site for a couple who died in the early 1900s with the last name “Keiner.” The paperwork for the wife, however, spelled the name “Kiner.” Task force officials spent hours trying to determine the correct spelling. Eventually they found a census roster from 1900 that listed “Keiner.” A regimental muster log from the Civil War also confirmed that spelling.

When reviewing some of the older sections of the cemetery, officials were initially alarmed to find many of the wives’ graves missing. But as they researched the paperwork, they discovered that the “decision to omit the spouse’s information on the headstone was deliberate.”

“Between the 1920s and the 1940s, it was apparently a culturally acceptable practice to inter a spouse in the same grave with her husband without including her name on the headstone,” the report said.

In those cases, the cemetery said it would replace headstones or add markers at the foot of the graves to note the wives’ interment.

Cemetery officials also found that a soldier had two graves: one for his amputated leg and another for the man when he died years later.

Signs of improvement

In recent months, the cemetery has received widespread praise for fixing many of the past problems there and for creating a system designed to prevent such mistakes from happening again. Last week, a review of the cemetery by the Government Accountability Office found that the Army “has taken positive steps to address management deficiencies at Arlington and has implemented improvements across a range of areas.”

On Thursday, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who sponsored the legislation requiring the cemetery’s accountability effort, praised the cemetery’s leadership, saying that Arlington “is now a turnaround story.”

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