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Army correcting high-profile problems at Arlington National Cemetery

By Mike Mount, CNN Senior Pentagon Producer
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Arlington graves gaffe questioned
  • Army examining, fixing issues at cemetery
  • Expected to overhaul how cemetery catalogues and keeps track of graves, burials
  • Cemetery leadership sanctioned after June 13 report
  • Army can't guarantee all graves will be accounted for

Washington (CNN) -- Fixing incorrectly marked and improperly located graves and designing a new and effective management structure has been the priority at Arlington National Cemetery since the Army announced earlier this month it had been neglected for years.

On Wednesday, Secretary of the Army John McHugh is expected to tell a House panel that the new management team he installed is in the midst of correcting some of the high-profile problems, while Army auditors prepare for a massive undertaking in rehabilitating how the cemetery catalogues and keeps track of graves and burials. The overhaul is expected to take years, according to Army officials not authorized to speak publicly ahead of McHugh.

McHugh is expected to answer questions by the House Armed Services Committee about what changes have been implemented since the June 13 announcement of massive mismanagement at the cemetery.

Army officials said it is still too soon to address many of the questions because there is a good deal to sort out, but McHugh will explain what plans are in the works, including looking at where the millions of dollars of contract money went that was supposed to be used to digitize and automate gravesite management.

The Army blames a lack of "documented procedures" for organizing burials for the loss of accountability of the remains, along with the failure to install a digitized system -- relying instead of an archaic morass of maps, information cards and microfiche.

But officials said cemetery employees have been working since the day the problems were announced to reconcile mismarked graves. They did not know how many graves had been matched with corresponding records.

Army contract oversight auditors will also look into how the deputy superintendent of the cemetery, Thurman Higginbotham, who was in charge of implementing the digital database, was allowed to be the cemetery's contract officer even though he lacked the education and training required to handle federal contracts, officials said.

When allegations of cemetery mismanagement began to surface last year, McHugh ordered an investigation, leading to the June 13 report.

After reviewing the investigation, McHugh made immediate changes this month but did not fire anyone. Instead, he ordered sanctions for the cemetery's leadership. Longtime Superintendent John C. Metzler was reprimanded, and Higginbotham was temporarily removed pending further review.

Metzler had already been scheduled to retire on July 2.

A new executive director position was created by McHugh to oversee all aspects of cemetery operations and a temporary superintendent replaced Metzler until a new one can be named.

The general in charge of the Army investigation, Lt. Gen. Steven Whitcomb, said 211 mismarked graves were in three locations of the cemetery.

"I don't know that there could be many more, but there could be more," he said at a press conference at the Pentagon on June 13.

However, as the cemetery holds more than 300,000 graves going back almost 150 years, the Army admits it can't guarantee that all will be accounted for.