The estimate of possibly mishandled graves at Arlington National Cemetery soared into the thousands Thursday, and ousted cemetery officials conceded that they knew about problems at least five years ago.
A Senate report released Thursday said that 4,900 to 6,600 graves among the 330,000 at Arlington, where veterans and others are buried, may be unmarked, improperly marked or mislabeled on cemetery maps.
An Army survey released in June of three of the cemetery’s 70 sections revealed 211 mishandled graves. The Senate report reached the larger figure by projecting the error rate onto the entire cemetery.
Kathryn Condon, who was appointed the first executive director of the Army National Cemeteries Program after the scandal erupted in the online magazine Salon, said the Army still did not have a complete count of burial errors.
FOR THE RECORD:
This story incorrectly states that a Senate report about mishandled graves at Arlington National Cemetery was released Thursday. The report was issued Tuesday.
“I am confident there are probably other map errors,” she said.
At a hearing of a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee, Chairwoman Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) accused cemetery officials of “catastrophic incompetence.”
“Waste, abuse, fraud — we’ve got the trifecta, and we have it concerning a national treasure,” she said.
Former cemetery Supt. John Metzler and Deputy Supt. Thurman Higginbotham were subpoenaed to attend the hearing. Both retired this month.
Higginbotham answered basic questions but invoked his 5th Amendment right to avoid self-incrimination when asked about his role in cemetery contracts.
“It was always conceptual that anything done by hand for 40-plus years, that there would have to be some errors somewhere,” he said.
Metzler accepted responsibility for the scandal but said he grappled with staff and budget cuts for years. The cemetery’s federal employees fell from 145 to 95 over the last 19 years, he said.
“There is no substitute for having dedicated staff in areas of particular importance,” he said. “We were holding on to the basic function of burying the dead and everything else was contracted out.”
With minimal oversight, cemetery officials awarded as much as $8 million in contracts to digitize burial records, according to the subcommittee report. The cemetery has little to show for the investment today, with most burial records still catalogued on notecards.
The Department of Veterans Affairs, which manages 131 other cemeteries, began digitizing burials in the mid-1990s with a system that cost $1.2 million and took about two years to implement, according to the subcommittee report.
An Air Force study showed the VA system could be replicated at Arlington, and the VA even offered to help, according to the report. But Arlington officials insisted on building their own costly system and did not bring up the Air Force report when making their case for funding.
The Army report concluded many burial errors stemmed from the antiquated record-keeping. Condon said she is revisiting the VA system and evaluating whether projects by contractors can be salvaged.
Metzler initially said he did not know about the problems raised in the Army report before its release. But after being pressed by McCaskill, he conceded that he learned in 2005 that the contents of two cremation urns had been emptied into a landfill. The problem was documented, but Army superiors were not directly notified, Metzler said.
“The notion that you would come in here and act like you didn’t know about it until a month ago is offensive,” McCaskill said. “You did know about it, and you did nothing.”
Metzler defended himself against some of the charges levied by senators, claiming that the mapping discrepancies did not affect families because the documents were only used internally.
Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) seemed perplexed by Metzler’s testimony, noting that he held a glorified image of Arlington before.
“It’s almost like learning there’s no Santa Claus or Easter Bunny,” he said.
Metzler insisted that problems that arose during his tenure were always promptly resolved. The cemetery has begun placing headstones on graves that were unmarked, he said.