Marine’s father: Arlington officials broke their word on disinterment

Scott Warner just wanted to make sure his son's remains were properly buried, but officials wouldn't cooperate

Topics: Arlington National Cemetery Investigation, War Room,

Marine's father: Arlington officials broke their word on disintermentMarine Col. Gregory Boyle, left, pays his respects to the parents of Pvt. Heath D. Warner, of Canton, Ohio, Melissa and Scott Warner, after handing them the U.S. flag that was draped his casket, during funeral service at Arlington National Cemetery, in Arlington, Va., Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2006.

Scott Warner traveled to Washington from Canton, Ohio, this week for the disinterment of his son’s remains at Arlington National Cemetery. Warner wanted to be sure his son Heath, a Marine killed in Iraq in 2006, was buried in the right spot. He was worried because the Arlington National Cemetery scandal, uncovered by Salon in a yearlong investigation, had unnerved him, and some of his son’s burial paperwork contained disturbing discrepancies.

The media covered Heath’s disinterment Wednesday closely, including the conclusion that Heath was buried correctly. But that’s far from the whole story.

“This thing has been portrayed as some big success story,” Warner told Salon during a telephone interview Thursday as he drove back to Ohio. “It was a disaster. It was a desecration of honor.”

It was also macabre. Warner says what really happened that day shows just how far the public trust in Arlington has evaporated and that the Army should be stripped of oversight of the cemetery. “Did I expect to be digging through my son’s casket looking for an arm? No,” he said. “For a family to go through what my family went through yesterday is beyond reproach.”

Warner had been suspicious even before he arrived in Virginia. During a Sept. 9 phone call with Kathryn Condon, the new executive director at the cemetery who was put in place this summer to clean up the scandal, Condon said a local funeral home had confirmed holding Heath’s remains just prior to his burial at Arlington in 2006. The same funeral home, however, had informed Warner there were no such records, Warner said.

Next, when Condon agreed to dig up Heath’s remains, she wanted it all done at 7 a.m., Warner says, before the cemetery opened to the public. “She tried to change the time from 8 a.m. to 7 a.m. so she could keep people out,” Warner said. “I told her I would be there at 8.” (He was.)

Then Condon said that Warner could bring two reporters to the cemetery with him, but no photography or video was allowed. “I said to her, you don’t have a problem with the media when everything is picturesque and you get those amazing photos,” Warner recalled. “But when it gets to the ugly side of your mistakes, you want to hide it.” (Warner lost this battle.)



Warner was so suspicious of the cemetery, he made Arlington agree not to open Heath’s casket until he got there. He wanted to see that process to make sure it was on the up-and-up.

“They said they were going to dig out the grave the night before and pump out any water that was in the vault,” but not open his son’s casket. Warner said he was insistent and the agreement was clear. “They said they would not open the vault or open his casket until we arrived on the 15th.”

The plan was that Arlington would pull up the casket with Warner there, and a friend of Heath’s would look at the remains to confirm his identity. This way, Warner would not have to see his son’s remains. Heath was killed in a roadside bomb attack in Anbar Province, Iraq. His body was badly ravaged by the blast, requiring a closed-casket funeral.

But when Warner arrived near his son’s gravesite, he was shocked when Condon handed him Heath’s dog tags. “Kathryn approached and said that they had opened the grave,” he said. “They proceeded to tell us they opened the vault, brought up the casket and made an external identification and gave me his dog tags,” he remembered. “They broke the agreement,” he said.

Warner said his mind raced. He felt unsure of who or what to trust. “Everything had been compromised,” he said.

Warner insisted they raise his son’s casket again. Arlington agreed. “The lid was (partly) open,” Warner said he noticed as the casket came up. “It looked like my son’s remains were going to fall out.”

Arlington workers put Heath’s casket on a flatbed truck, covered it with plastic and an American flag, and drove to a secluded warehouse on the cemetery perimeter. “It was like a garage,” Warner recalled.

When the casket was opened, Warner panicked. He felt like he would never get real closure unless he did the unthinkable. “I literally jumped up on the flatbed. Don’t ask me how I did it,” he said.

He looked at the remains. His son’s body was unrecognizable from the blast and the decomposition. “I could not even tell you what was there,” he said, describing the grisly inside of his son’s coffin. “It was so bad. It was a ghastly sight.”

Warner remembered a distinctive tattoo on his son’s arm. “I took my hat off. I took my jacket off. I began to dig in his casket,” he said. “They gave me a pair of latex gloves.”

Warner found his son’s torso. “The body had rolled,” he said. Under the torso was Heath’s arm. “It was underneath his back,” Warner said. “I began to rub some mud off his arm. I was able to make an identification because his tattoo was intact and viewable.”

Warner said he wants people to know what happened that day, how a scandal and further missteps by Arlington have driven grieving families past the edge. He says the scandal at Arlington followed by the cemetery’s bungling of the disinterment made him desperate for closure, and that his trust in Arlington has deteriorated to nothing. “I had no choice,” he said about going through his son’s remains. “This was just beyond anything I ever imagined. It is something I will have to live with for the rest of my life.”

Warner said he has no confidence that the Army, which has overseen the cemetery for years, can also be responsible for fixing the problems there: “These people should all just be fired.”

For weeks, the Army has not responded to any questions from Salon or any requests for interviews about the Arlington scandal, including a request to interview Condon.

Mark Benjamin is a national correspondent for Salon based in Washington, D.C. Read his other articles here.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>