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Improvements at Arlington Cemetery, but problems remain

By Emily Seagrave Kennedy, McClatchy Newspapers –

WASHINGTON — Just a year and a half after condemning officials at Arlington National Cemetery for “heartbreakingly incompetent management,” Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri and members of the Government Accountability Office complimented leaders Wednesday for progress made.

“The amount of progress that has been made is substantial and significant. Within 18 months, we have a completely different protocol at Arlington as it relates to accountability, and I think that’s good,” McCaskill said.

The marked praise came after the 2010 scandal involving the improper management of gravesites. Thousands of graves had been discovered to be improperly marked, burial urns with unidentified cremated remains had been found in landfills, and major bureaucratic discrepancies in burial documentation were discovered, with index cards being used in many cases to identify graves.

At a hearing Wednesday, GAO officials and Army leaders cited what they said were major improvements — including in strategic planning, workforce management and technology at the cemetery, but they noted that there was progress still to be made.

Officials said they’re working on creating a database and an iPhone app to help visitors find the gravesites of their loved ones. They hope to release the app this summer, they said.

Meanwhile, problems remain. The Department of the Army reported Wednesday that its own internal re-inspection of the cemetery confirmed that the widely cited number of individuals buried at the cemetery, 330,000, had been underestimated. The re-inspection is continuing, but new data suggests that the figure is somewhere over 400,000.

Kathryn Condon, the executive director of the Army National Cemeteries, would not disclose the exact number, saying the investigation was ongoing.

“Because we have a team of about 40 individuals working on this, we should probably come to closure by this summer,” she told lawmakers.

Just earlier this week, The Washington Post reported on mismanagement of other national cemeteries, citing a Department of Veterans Affairs National Cemetery Administration report that described scores of misplaced headstones and at least eight cases of people buried in the wrong places at several military cemeteries across the country.

Meanwhile, the Government Accountability Office on Wednesday issued another series of reports on Arlington, which found that the Army still has gaps in the cemetery’s contracting system.

The report raised the possibility of transferring stewardship of Arlington to the Department of Veterans Affairs. But it said costs, as well as the fact that the Army has made great advances in improving oversight, should put the issue on the back burner for the time being. Condon said Wednesday that increased efforts were being made in “cross-training” with the VA.

Wednesday’s hearing included testimony on two recent reports: one released by the GAO early Wednesday, and another released by the Army in September.

The reports were made after an investigation into the cemetery’s practices, leadership and daily management. Thurman Higginbotham, a former deputy superintendent at Arlington, and his boss, former Superintendent John C. Metzler, were forced to resign from their positions in 2010.

Arlington National Cemetery is one of two national cemeteries run by the Department of the Army, while the Department of Veterans Affairs’ National Cemetery Administration maintains 131 national cemeteries, as well as additional monument sites.

McCaskill said Wednesday that she would not feel settled on the issue until every gravesite was accounted for, so that “no tragedy like the one we saw unfold in 2010 is ever again reported.”

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