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September 19, 2010

US Army Continues to Probe Burial Mix-Ups at Arlington National Cemetery

The U.S. Army continues to investigate reports that thousands of grave sites at the nation's most prestigious military cemetery could be unmarked or mislabeled. Just weeks ago, officials at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia found two more people buried in the wrong spots. This after a government inspector general's report in June revealed extensive recordkeeping problems at the cemetery.

Arlington National Cemetery - just outside Washington - one of the nation's most hallowed sites. It's where the remains of more than 300,000 service members are buried, including many who died in military conflicts dating back to the American Civil War.

As families come here to say their final goodbyes, the Army continues to deal with the fallout from an unfolding scandal over cemetery mismanagement.

"There's simply no excuse," said John McHugh, Secretary of the Army. "And on behalf of the U.S. Army and on behalf of myself, 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."

Army officials say as many as 6,600 graves at Arlington appear to be unmarked or mislabeled on cemetery maps. The revelations follow a seven-month investigation into poor record keeping and improper burials of American soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Among the discoveries: bodies buried on top of one another in the same grave, and unidentified cremated remains found in a landfill on the cemetery grounds.

After the scandal broke earlier this year, the cemetery's superintendent John Metzler and his deputy Thurman Higginbotham abruptly retired.  At a congressional hearing, Higginbotham tried to explain to Senator Claire McCaskill what went wrong.

"Anything that's done by hand for 140-plus years, well  there would have to be some errors somewhere," he said.

"It's called keeping track of who you bury where. That is not a complicated task," McCaskill replied.   

So far, the Defense Department has received more than one thousand calls from concerned families who worry their loved ones might be buried in the wrong place.

One such call last month, from the concerned widow of a soldier, led to the discovery that her husband and another soldier had been buried in each other's graves.

Cemetery officials also exhumed the body of a Marine killed in Iraq in 2006, but the family was able to positively identify his remains.

Army spokesman Gary Tallman said officials were gratified the outcome in that case was positive.

Still, the scandal weighs on the minds of many of the cemetery's nearly four million annual visitors - such as Dee Lavery and her husband.

"It's inexcusable," she said. "This is someplace where heroes are buried and you should take better care of them than that."

The Army says it has begun to strengthen its management and oversight at Arlington Cemetery, including crosschecking grave sites and modernizing the recordkeeping system. But some family members of fallen soldiers say they still wonder whether their loved ones are properly resting in peace in the nation's premier military cemetery.