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Army admits 'unimaginable, unacceptable wrongs' at Arlington Cemetery

By Laurie Ure, CNN Pentagon Producer
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Arlington graves gaffe questioned
  • Army secretary says he will do all he can to fix ''unimaginable, unacceptable wrongs"
  • He concedes "by placing everyone in charge, no one was in charge
  • Investigation revealed that 211 graves at the historic cemetery were misidentified or mislocated
  • No one has been fired

Washington (CNN) -- Army Secretary John McHugh told Congress Wednesday that "unimaginable, unacceptable wrongs" had resulted from the mismanagement of Arlington Cemetery, one of the nation's most hallowed burial places for its war dead.

A months-long Army investigation initiated by McHugh revealed that 211 graves at the historic cemetery were misidentified or mislocated.

Conceding that "by placing everyone in charge, no one was in charge," McHugh vowed to do "everything necessary and possible to right these unimaginable, unacceptable wrongs."

The probe exposed a dysfunctional management team with no oversight, missing documents, poor record keeping, and failure to notify next-of-kin about the problems, according to the Inspector General's report.

Rep. Howard McKeon, R-California, the ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, expressed concerns over the cemetery's "nearly complete failure to comply with federal, defense, or Army acquisition regulations," avoiding "basic common sense."

"The evidence provided by the I.G. goes far beyond inadvertent noncompliance by over-worked contracting officers," McKeon said. "I find these practices to be unacceptable."


McHugh, sworn in as Army Secretary in September, said he never imagined facing an issue such as this. He said that the circumstances were allowed to continue due in part to a lack of clear lines of authority.

"I've restructured the administrative processes, and the lines of authority are pretty clear through the executive director, right down to my desk," McHugh said.

He said the solutions include beefing up investment in modern computer technology, and if certain regulations against it are worked out, the possible use of outside help.

McHugh said a number of solutions are currently being considered for correctly identifying the remains in question, including exhuming graves.

He said some of the dead are buried in unique caskets that family members could identify.

Less ideally, the caskets could be opened and any articles and mementos left inside could single out individuals.

As a last resort, McHugh said DNA tests could be conducted on decomposed remains, assuming proper authorization from the families, McHugh said.

McHugh has already created a position to oversee operations at Arlington, and will personally oversee the superintendent position.

In addition to missing burial records and unmarked graves, the investigation discovered that burial urns were put in a spillage pile filled with dirt from shoveled gravesites.

Investigators also said inaccurate burial maps are a "systemic problem."

Surprisingly, no one was fired after the Inspector General's report was made public.

Longtime Arlington Cemetery Superintendent John Metzler, who was already scheduled to retire next month, was reprimanded, and his deputy, Thurman Higginbotham, was placed on administrative leave pending further review.

Army Inspector-General Steven Whitcomb said his review found no evidence of deliberate wrongdoing.

Gina Gray, an Iraq veteran who has brought legal action, said she was fired from her job at Arlington Cemetery after whistleblowing the problems to Congress.

She alleges the cemetery was given millions of dollars to update its record-keeping systems, yet still uses outdated technology.

"I don't know what it is going to take to get them fired over there," Gray said. "We have evidence of unmarked, mismarked graves, mismanagement going decades back."

Asked at Wednesday's hearing about any restitution for Gray, Whitcomb declined to comment, citing ongoing litigation.