In a scandal that has outraged veterans and the families of fallen U.S. soldiers, a seven-month Army investigation has concluded that the remains of hundreds of soldiers may have been misplaced or misidentified at Arlington National Cemetery due to lax management. "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," said Army Secretary John McHugh. (Watch a Fox report about Arlington's offenses.) Here, a quick guide to what went wrong, and what the military is doing to keep it from happening again:
How did the Army figure out it had a problem?
The Army looked into the matter after the online magazine Salon published articles based on a year-long investigation into problems at Arlington, a burial ground for America's honored dead since the Civil War. Salon's Mark Benjamin discovered cases in which Arlington workers had found unmarked remains, or buried two service members in the same grave. In several cases, burial urns were found in mounds of grave dirt.
What did Army investigators find?
In short, a big mess. Management was lax, the system was chaotic. At a cemetery where 300,000 people are buried and 30 funerals are conducted every day, administrators were using a "dysfunctional" system — often relying on paper records to keep everything straight. More than 100 graves were unmarked; others had headstones, but no remains inside. According to the Army's inspector general, Lt. Gen. Steven Whitcomb, the remains of 211 people appear to have been mislabeled or buried in the wrong place. The Army didn't specify how old the graves were, or in what conflicts the misidentified soldiers served — although two of them were in the area for veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan. And Salon's Benjamin says these findings are just the tip of the iceberg.
How much worse can it get?
Benjamin estimates that 500 remains are missing in a part of the cemetery outside the three sections where the Army found problems. That area, known as Section 27, holds the graves of Civil War veterans, including African-American soldiers and freed slaves. In that section, Benjamin wrote in April, "hundreds of graves shown as 'occupied' on the map are unmarked today." The map shows 5,816 occupied graves in Section 27, but Benjamin counted just 5,303 headstones. "What was most disgraceful," Benjamin told Politics Daily, "was when I came upon instances when the staff at Arlington would dig down into the ground, actually find bodies that it could not identify, and then simply cover them over with dirt and grass and walk away."
What's the Army doing to fix the problem?
On Thursday, the Army announced it was replacing the civilian leaders of the cemetery — Superintendent John Metzler, who is retiring July 2, and his deputy Thurman Higgenbotham, who has been placed on administrative leave while the Army investigates further. Army Secretary McHugh also announced more management changes, including a new Army National Cemeteries Advisory Commission to regularly review policies and procedures at national cemeteries. But Benjamin says the next step is identifying every mismarked grave, although the Army has not decided whether to exhume graves or use X-ray technology to identify remains. "Unless the Army starts digging up a whole lot more graves," he said, "we can't be sure how many bodies are actually buried in the right place."