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Ongoing Scrutiny Over Missteps at Arlington Cemetery

November 11, 2010 at 6:30 PM EDT
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On Veterans Day, Ray Suarez reports on the ongoing investigation into the mishandling of remains at the nation's most well-known cemetery.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, finally: on this Veterans Day, an update on the troubles on some hallowed ground. Ray Suarez has our story.

RAY SUAREZ: The ceremony, laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery, is repeated every November 11.

This year, Vice President Biden paid tribute to the sacrifices made by the nation’s veterans and their families.

U.S. VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: Collectively, the generation of soldiers, sailors and airmen and Marines who have served and sacrificed for us are the heart and soul, the very spine of this nation.

RAY SUAREZ: This Veterans Day comes at a time of trouble for the nation’s most well-known and visited national cemetery. How and where veterans are buried is the focus of several investigations, after Army officials acknowledged last summer that remains had been mishandled and misplaced.

JOHN MCHUGH, Secretary of the Army: As to the negative findings of the report, there’s simply no excuse.

RAY SUAREZ: At a press conference in June, Army Secretary John McHugh revealed the findings of a report by the Army’s inspector general.

JOHN MCHUGH: The I.G. found Arlington’s mission hampered by dysfunctional management, a lack of established policy and procedures, and an overall unhealthy organizational climate.

RAY SUAREZ: At least 211 sets of remains were misidentified or unaccounted for. At least four burial urns had been unearthed and discarded. Despite an expensive new information system, the record-keeping was in shambles.

The Army swiftly made some changes, ousting top managers, and turned training of cemetery workers over to the Veterans Administration. Christian Davenport has been covering the story for The Washington Post.

CHRISTIAN DAVENPORT, The Washington Post: There are 330,000 people there. What the I.G. focused on was on three sections. There are a total of 70 sections at the cemetery. So, really, they’re only at the beginning for their investigation in trying to find out what’s going on.

RAY SUAREZ: Davenport said one change, a hot line for family members to call, has brought mixed results. In one case, the worried father of Marine Corps Private Heath Warner asked that his son be exhumed to verify that the young Marine’s body was in the right spot. It was, but, when another grave was inspected, the plot was empty.

CHRISTIAN DAVENPORT: A family member called, inquired about whether their loved one was buried in the right place. They were assured that, yes, they were buried in the right place.

The family member was unconvinced, because they thought that the problems, you know, from the beginning was the paperwork system, and didn’t trust what the cemetery was telling them. They insisted that their loved one’s grave site was opened. And, when they opened the grave site, they found that the remains there were not the correct remains.

RAY SUAREZ: Davenport said that was an isolated case, but other mistakes could lie buried under the rows of green grass and white stones.

CHRISTIAN DAVENPORT: It actually involved three separate grave sites. In fact, one grave site was empty. One grave site had the wrong set of remains. The remains didn’t match the remains on the headstone. And a third grave site had two sets of remains, only one of which matched the headstone.

RAY SUAREZ: Looking into the unanswered questions are the Army’s Criminal Investigative Command and a Senate committee probe launched in July.

SEN. CLAIRE MCCASKILL (D-Miss.): And now we know that the problems with the graves at Arlington may be far more extensive than previously acknowledged. At a conservative estimate, 4,900 to 6,600 graves may be unmarked, improperly marked, or mislabeled on the cemetery’s maps.

RAY SUAREZ: One witness, former top official Thurman Higginbotham, refused to answer questions.

SEN. CLAIRE MCCASKILL: Mr. Higginbotham, do you have an opening statement?

THURMAN HIGGINBOTHAM, former deputy superintendent, Arlington National Cemetery: No, ma’am, I do not.

I would like to — after consultation with counsel, I will assert my Fifth Amendment rights to any and all questions that the committee may ask.

RAY SUAREZ: Higginbotham was one of the managers who was replaced. Some senators have considered removing all responsibility for Arlington from the Army and handing it to the VA. The VA already administers 131 military cemeteries, all except Arlington.

As the Army and others address the problems with the graves, burials continue at Arlington National Cemetery. Eighteen veterans were interred yesterday, and there will be another 21 burials tomorrow.