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Inquiry Finds Graves Mismarked at Arlington

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WASHINGTON — The remains in more than 200 graves at Arlington National Cemetery may be incorrectly identified, the secretary of the Army said Thursday, as he announced a shake-up in the cemetery’s management. In some cases, remains were found in graves listed as empty, and occupied grave sites were unmarked.

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John McHugh, secretary of the Army, apologized for the errors at Arlington.

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“That all ends today,” Secretary John McHugh said at a Pentagon news conference.

An Army report listed dozens of deficiencies in the day-to-day management of the cemetery, including an outdated recordkeeping system that may have contributed to many of the errors at Arlington, which was first designated for military burials in 1864. An inspection, which began in August 2009 following a year long investigative series by salon.com, found problems at 211 sites.

“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,” Secretary McHugh said.

Lt. Gen. Steven Whitcomb, the Army’s inspector general, said most of the mismarked graves were in Sections 59, 65 and 66. Section 59 includes the graves of Marines killed in a 1983 bombing in Beirut.

“There could in fact be more,” he said. “We need to bring the recordkeeping at Arlington into the 21st century.”

Arlington National Cemetery still uses paper to track the approximately 320,000 people buried there, despite millions of dollars it has paid to contractors to computerize its records. The report found that the cemetery lacked the expert staff necessary to properly manage contractors, and that Army agencies did not properly oversee the cemetery’s contracts.

Secretary McHugh announced a series of corrective measures, including the creation of a new position, executive director of the Army national cemeteries program, to oversee the cemetery and its staff. Kathryn Condon, previously the senior civilian for Army Materiel Command, will fill the position and carry out a more complete investigation of the mistakes.

Correcting errors at grave sites may require disinterring remains or using X-ray machines to detect whether remains are present in unmarked sites, General Whitcomb said.

John C. Metzler Jr., who has been the cemetery’s superintendent since 1991, announced his retirement last month, effective July 2, and Secretary McHugh’s official reprimand of him was posted on the Army Web site.

Investigators from the inspector general’s office were alerted to about a dozen of the mistakes by family members of soldiers, former cemetery employees and journalists, General Whitcomb said. When pressed to explain how the mistakes could have happened, General Whitcomb said, for example, that a lawn mower might have damaged a headstone that was then removed but never replaced, leading cemetery staff to believe the grave was unoccupied.

“Clearly we found nothing that was intentional, criminal intent or intended sloppiness that caused this,” he said.

Still, the investigation found evidence of systemic problems, including low employee morale and conflicts between Mr. Metzler and the deputy superintendent, Thurman Higginbotham. Mr. Higginbotham has been placed on administrative leave pending further investigation.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: June 12, 2010

An article on Friday about an Army report citing dozens of deficiencies in the day-to-day management of Arlington National Cemetery omitted the news organization that first reported the problems, including more than 200 mismarked graves. The Army’s inquiry followed a year-long investigative series by salon.com, part of the Salon Media Group.

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