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'Keep after 'em,' widower tells hearing on Arlington problems

By Larry Shaughnessy, CNN Pentagon Unit
Retired Air Force Col. William Koch Jr.'s wife, Jean, was buried in the wrong grave at Arlington National Cemetery.
Retired Air Force Col. William Koch Jr.'s wife, Jean, was buried in the wrong grave at Arlington National Cemetery.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A House hearing focuses on problems at Army-run Arlington National Cemetery
  • Congress was told last summer that cemetery may have more than 200 mismarked graves
  • Some lawmakers wonder if Arlington's control should go to Department of Veterans Affairs
  • A widower whose wife was buried in the wrong grave says VA "couldn't do any worse"
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Washington (CNN) -- Retired Air Force Col. William Koch Jr. is a Vietnam veteran. His wife, Jean, died in 2005, but he didn't know where she was buried in Arlington National Cemetery until last year.

Koch blames the U.S. Army, which runs Arlington, and he told Congress on Thursday to "keep after 'em."

Koch is among dozens of survivors whose loved ones were buried in wrong or mismarked graves. It's an ongoing scandal at the nation's most hallowed burial ground for its fallen service members. Problems began in the early 1990s, according to a Washington Post investigation, and continue to this day with more revealed this week.

Koch's wife, as the spouse of an eligible veteran, was supposed to be buried the grave site where Koch would eventually be buried. Her headstone was on the grave. He placed flowers on that grave.

"I even took her mother up there so she could see her daughter's grave site, and all she saw was a headstone and an empty grave," Koch said. It was empty because her remains, for some reason, were buried in a grave with the urn of a fallen staff sergeant. The staff sergeant was reburied elsewhere, Jean Koch's coffin was left in that grave site and a new headstone was put on her real resting place.

It's stories such as the one Koch told Thursday at a House Armed Services Committee hearing that had some lawmakers wondering if the cemetery's control should be turned over to the Department of Veterans Affairs, which runs most of the nation's military cemeteries.

"We need to honor the sacred ground at Arlington, and I can tell you that we need leadership that respects that," Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colorado, told Army officials, who took over control of Arlington 10 months ago. "You really, fundamentally, at the end of the day don't care. ... You are bureaucrats."

Kathryn Condon, executive director of the Army's cemeteries program, and Patrick K. Hallinan, the cemetery superintendent who runs Arlington's day-to-day operations, both insist they are doing their utmost to undo years of mismanagement. They took over after the previous managers retired in disgrace.

The Army reprimanded John Metzler, the longtime Arlington superintendent, after the discovery of a number of problems with mismarked graves. Metzler and his second-in-command, Thurman Higginbotham, were allowed to retire last summer after the secretary of the Army told Congress that Arlington may have more than 200 mismarked graves.

SInce then a criminal investigation has begun into cases of remains found improperly buried at Arlington, and an inspector general's probe is looking at the overall problems at the cemetery.

Neither investigation is complete yet.

Coffman said he believes the problems are bigger than the management. "This is an organization that is rotten to its core. This is an organization that has conducted itself -- really, I think the best way to describe it is a culture of incompetence, if not a culture of corruption."

Condon testified that she and Hallinan are trying to make sure each grave is properly marked. "When we check all the records with the actual grave site, that should identify where we may have potential discrepancies in the cemetery," Condon said. "If we find a discrepancy, we will contact the families that are involved."

But there are 330,000 graves, and she admits that resolving each problem grave may be impossible. Even contacting the families is not easy because the Army doesn't always have the latest contact information on survivors -- if there are any.

Hallinan told committee members that having the VA take over control of Arlington would be a mistake.

"Arlington provides graveside service which VA cemeteries do not. In addition, Washington, D.C., and Arlington National Cemetery (are among) the most visited tourist spots in the country," Hallinan said.

"We average over 4 million visitors, who come to learn of the history and pay their respects. There is no other VA cemetery like that."

Referring to families who lost members in combat, Hallinan said, "The Gold Star parents that we've met with ... felt quite passionately and adamantly that Arlington should stay under the Army and not become a VA national cemetery."

On Friday, for the first time since the Army discovered where his wife is really buried and where her new headstone stands, Koch will go to visit the site. He said he wants the moment to be private, just between him and his "beautiful wife."

But when asked if the VA should take over the cemetery where he will one day join his wife, Koch said, "They couldn't do any worse."