A criminal investigation and allegations of misplaced bodies and shoddy care have roiled the famous burial ground
An elegant white sign at Arlington National Cemetery informs visitors they are inside “our nation’s most sacred shrine.” Run under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Army, Arlington is the final resting place of John and Robert Kennedy, Supreme Court justices Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. and Earl Warren, and the nation’s military royalty from the Civil War to the Iraq war. More than 4 million people visit Arlington every year to tour the legendary grave sites, which include those of “Maltese Falcon” author Dashiell Hammett and big-band leader Glenn Miller, and watch a specially trained U.S. infantry soldier march silently in guard of the Tomb of the Unknowns. Arlington shelters the remains of more than 320,000 service members and holds nearly 30 new funerals a day. As visitors head out into the sacred grounds, the cemetery asks, “Please conduct yourselves with dignity and respect at all times.”
Behind the pristine lawns, the dignity of, and respect for, Arlington National Cemetery are tattered. An Army investigation this year found that the de facto boss of the cemetery, Deputy Superintendent Thurman Higginbotham, made false statements to Army investigators as they probed what they later classified as wire fraud at Arlington — a female employee’s computer had been tapped into without authorization, and she had been impersonated online. An internal Army memo and an interview with a former Army employee also suggest that high-level Army officials knew for months about problems at Arlington but failed to act. Three former public affairs officers have recently testified under oath about a hostile work environment at Arlington. One was fired after speaking out. The other two quit in disgust.
Sadly, Arlington’s internal problems have materialized on the grounds themselves. Despite nearly 10 years and countless dollars spent on computerizing its operations, the cemetery still relies mostly on paper burial records that in some cases do not match the headstones. “There are numerous examples of discrepancies that exist between burial maps, the physical location of headstones, and the burial records/grave cards,” the cemetery admitted in a 2008 report to Congress.
And in a relatively remote area of the cemetery, where 600 service members from Iraq and Afghanistan are laid to rest, personal mementos placed on graves are left out to rot in the rain for days, ruined by workers with power washers, or thrown into a trash bin.
“The aesthetics of the cemetery are deceptive,” says Gina Gray, an Army veteran of eight years who served in Iraq and who was the cemetery’s public affairs officer in early 2008, before she was fired over a clash with her boss. “To the naked eye, it is a place of sacred beauty and a tribute to our nation’s heroes,” says Gray, who has been rehired as an Army contractor at Fort Belvoir, in Virginia. “But if you scratch below the surface, you will find that it’s really just window dressing. They’ve put these pretty curtains up to hide the ugliness on the inside.”
At the center of the chaos is Higginbotham, Gray’s former superior and a focus of the Army investigation. While cemetery Superintendent John Metzler is the titular head at Arlington, Higginbotham runs the show, say current and former employees. A tall and imposing man, Higginbotham has worked at the cemetery since 1965. He started as a security guard and worked his way up to deputy supervisor in 1990. In his current position, he has earned a reputation for running the cemetery with an iron fist. (Higginbotham declined to talk to Salon.)
One of Higginbotham’s failures, say employees, has been his inability to rectify disturbing discrepancies between burial records and information on headstones. For years, Arlington has struggled to replace paper-and-pen burial records with a satellite-aided system of tracking grave locations. “My goal is to have all the gravesites available online to the public, so people can look up a grave from home and print out a map that will show exactly where the gravesite is,” Higginbotham told Government Computer News in April 2006. Such systems are standard at other cemeteries, like the Spring Grove Cemetery in Cincinnati, Ohio, nearly identical to Arlington in age and size. Yet an effort begun in 2000 to set up a similar system at Arlington remains unrealized.
In 2004 and 2005, Arlington conducted a pilot project to check burial records against headstone information on 300 graves. “The accuracy of interment records and maps that track reserved, obstructed, and occupied graves were proven to have errors,” the project found, according to Arlington National Cemetery budget documents. “For example, gravesites that were marked as obstructed were actually available and information listed on grave cards and burial records were not consistent with the information on the actual headstone.”
The problems continue today. In 2008, Arlington National Cemetery issued a progress report to Congress on the computerization project. “The current way of doing business is mostly manual, complex, redundant and inefficient,” cemetery officials noted, acknowledging continuing discrepancies among burial maps, headstones and burial records.
Gray says her conversations with groundskeepers suggest the discrepancies and confusion might not stop at the grave’s edge. “They told me they’ve got people buried there that they don’t know who they are, and then they’ve got the wrong headstones over the graves.” She adds: “I told several Army officials — in one instance, a two-star general — but nothing was ever followed up on.” Salon heard the same claims from current and former cemetery employees, who asked to remain anonymous.
Arlington officials insist that there are no cases at Arlington where headstones do not match the remains beneath. “We are not aware of any situation like that,” says cemetery spokeswoman Kaitlin Horst.
Gray, who was fired, has a gripe against the cemetery, to be sure. But her complaints against Higginbotham triggered an investigation that exposed criminal acts that question the Army’s oversight of Arlington.
Higginbotham fell under the eye of the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command in October 2008, when Gray reported to investigators that somebody had tapped into her e-mail account. But the trouble between Gray and Higginbotham began months earlier, in April 2008, just a few days after Gray landed her job as public affairs officer. During the high-profile funeral of a decorated officer killed in Iraq, the deputy superintendent tried to move the media 100 yards from the funeral, making coverage all but impossible. Gray pushed back, stating that Army regulations did not bar the media from a funeral when families agreed to the coverage.
Gray’s insistence on fair access for the media turned into an embarrassment for the cemetery — and for the Army — when the Washington Post wrote about the tussle. Journalists trying to cover the funeral were “separated from the mourning party by six or seven rows of graves, and staring into the sun and penned in by a yellow rope,” the Post wrote. Gray, the paper added, “pushed vigorously to allow the journalists more access to the service yesterday — but she was apparently shot down by other cemetery officials.”
Gray locked horns with Higginbotham in the following weeks. In June, she pursued an equal employment opportunity complaint against the cemetery. She claimed discrimination based on “race, sex, age and reprisal” (Gray is white and Higginbotham is an African-American) and a hostile work environment. The cemetery fired Gray a few weeks later — a story that again made its way into the Post. “Putting her foot down and getting the boot,” read the headline.
The cemetery blames Gray for poor job performance. Its termination memorandum claims she failed to follow instructions, communicated poorly with superiors, and behaved disrespectfully to those superiors. Cemetery officials cited e-mail traffic prior to Memorial Day in 2008, in which Gray seemed intent on the use of Army public affairs specialists to interact with the media on Memorial Day, rather than the cemetery staff preferred by Gray’s bosses.
In her sworn testimony in the fall, as part of her equal opportunity complaint, which is still pending, Gray stressed “an elitist mentality among cemetery officials.” Kara McCarthy, who held Gray’s job at the cemetery from early 2007 until March 2008, also testified. She said Higginbotham and other top officials at Arlington “could do whatever the hell they wanted, and they did, because they had been getting away with it for years.” McCarthy said she also left the cemetery after a year because of the “hostile work environment.”
In his testimony, Higginbotham describes himself as in charge. “The day-to-day operation of Arlington National Cemetery is my responsibility,” he said. He stated he had little interaction with Gray and less to do with her termination. “I had no direct involvement with her on a day-to-day basis,” Higginbotham said under oath. “I was not involved in this.” He added that Gray was “not subjected to a hostile work environment.”
As it turned out, Higginbotham had been worried about Gray, fretting in an e-mail that he could be the victim of a “conspiracy.” He was apparently determined to learn what he could about her.
In October, a friend of Gray’s who had worked at Arlington e-mailed Gray’s Army account to say hello. An hour later, the friend received an e-mail with Gina Gray’s name on it. “I see you’ve moved on,” the e-mail read. “A lot of drama going on at ANC.” The note was signed, “GG.” Yet Gray had been locked out of that e-mail account since the day she was fired in June. She had not sent it.
“I felt sick,” Gray says, when she heard about the e-mail impersonating her. “I felt like somebody had broken into my house and gone through my things.” Gray alerted the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command.
Army agents first questioned Higginbotham on Oct. 16. The Army did authorize a search of Gray’s computer, but before that, Higginbotham said, “no one used her computer until they received authorization.” Higginbotham added that access without permission would have been impossible, as a special card and password were needed to get into Gray’s computer. “No one used her computer until after they received authorization,” he reiterated, according to the Army report.
But the Army soon found reason to doubt that Higginbotham was telling the truth. It discovered an e-mail written to the deputy superintendent dated June 27, 2008 — the day Gray was fired and before the Army authorized access to Gray’s computer. It was from Bobbie Garrett, who worked for a contractor favored by Higginbotham, called Alpha Technology Group. The e-mail sent to Higginbotham, and one of Higginbotham’s subordinates, read: “I was able to access Ms. Gray’s computer. I changed her domain account to be able to log in with the username and password. To login to this PC, use the following: Username: gina.gray. Password: PublicAffairs11**.”
Army agents learned Higginbotham had also ordered Garrett, the contractor, to remove Gray’s hard drive and send it out to a private company to mine for information. But an Army official involved in authorizing access to Gray’s e-mail said he “never authorized anyone at ANC [Arlington National Cemetery] to pull the hard drive from Ms. Gray’s work computer.” When Army investigators attempted to interview Garrett, Alpha Technology Group told them Garrett had resigned, adding, “Mr. Garrett was supposedly in Ohio visiting his sick mother” and was unavailable. Alpha Technology Group did not return Salon’s phone call or e-mail to the company’s director of public relations.
Army investigators uncovered further evidence that Gray’s computer had been broken into without authorization. They found an e-mail from Higginbotham discussing Gray with an Army official, in which Higginbotham had attached “the list of persons that she bcc’d.” That list, investigators noted, must have come “from someone logged into Ms. Gray’s email account.”
Lori Calvillo, who also worked as a public affairs officer at Arlington and quit under “hostile” circumstances, testified in Gray’s employment hearing that Arlington officials had also hacked her computer. “They did the exact same thing to me,” she said. (The computer analysis conducted by the Army states that it was “possible Mr. Higginbotham routinely reviews employee’s email when he deems necessary.”)
Why didn’t Army officials in Higginbotham’s e-mail chain — including Col. Jerry Blixt, the garrison commander at Fort Belvoir, and William Koon, an attorney at the Military District of Washington, which oversees the cemetery — recognize that Gray’s computer had been breached? In fact, the Army had been aware of complaints about a “pattern of workplace … hostility” at Arlington, as a July 2008 Army memo states, months before it launched its Army Criminal Investigation Command (CID) investigation. In June, Gray had met with Maj. Gen. Richard Rowe, then the commanding general of the Military District of Washington, to explain the problems. So why did the Army wait months to investigate? “The Army viewed the allegations associated with the cemetery very seriously, as we do any such allegation,” Gary Tallman, an Army spokesman said. “Allegations of a criminal nature were referred to, and investigated by, CID.”
In the conclusion of their report, Army investigators declared Higginbotham “made false and misleading statements to agents from this office, regarding access to Ms. Gray’s email account and government computer.” The report said agents could not determine precisely who impersonated Gray online but called the act “wire fraud.”
Higginbotham has had a share of personal challenges. He came out of Chapter 13 bankruptcy proceedings in 2002. In the case, a judge did not excuse Higginbotham for a debt associated with “a death or personal injury caused by the debtor’s unlawful operation of a motor vehicle while intoxicated” in 1990. Today he is also the chief financial officer of Roads Inc., an organization of African-American funeral professionals, where he lists himself as “Dr. Thurman Higginbotham,” although he doesn’t hold a university Ph.D. or medical degree.
Currently no legal action against Higginbotham is expected. On April 23, an assistant U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of Virginia declined prosecution based on the Army’s findings. The report adds, however, that “civilian report of disciplinary action is pending.” Superintendent John Metzler would not say whether Higginbotham faced any disciplinary action. “The privacy act prevents me from discussing actions on individual employees here at the cemetery,” Metzler says. Higginbotham declined a request for an interview.
During the Higginbotham investigation, a different kind of crime arose at Arlington. But this one had little to do with the law. In her sworn testimony, Gray criticized the cemetery for disposing of artifacts left in Section 60, where soldiers who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan are buried. “They throw away things that are left at the gravesites — cards, letters,” Gray said. “They don’t save anything.”
Tomorrow: A visit to Arlington’s Section 60, where history ends up in the trash, and to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Collection, where history is carefully preserved.
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(Research assistance by Christopher M. Matthews and Josh Loewenstein)
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Salon began investigating burial operations at Arlington National Cemetery in the spring of 2009. In a series of reports since, then Salon has exposed cases in which officials found unknown remains in graves that were supposed to be empty, buried a service member on top of another, and discovered
an urn in a dirt landfill, only to mark it as "unknown" and quietly bury it in an isolated corner of the cemetery. The series also documented hundreds of missing headstones in one historic section of the cemetery.
In response to these and other revelations, the Army launched an investigation. In June 2010, John Metzler Jr., Arlington's superintendent, and his deputy, Thurman Higginbotham were stripped of their their authority, and Army Secretary John McHugh appointed a commission led by former Sens. Bob Dole, R-Kansas, and Max Cleland, D-Ga., to oversee the cemetery.