Arlington Cemetery's buried secrets

Arlington admits it can't identify grave-site remains -- while new evidence casts doubt on Army investigation

Published July 21, 2009 12:21PM (EDT)

This is block of empty grass is grave 449 in section 68 at Arlington National Cemetery. Officials have known for 6 years about unknown remains there.
This is block of empty grass is grave 449 in section 68 at Arlington National Cemetery. Officials have known for 6 years about unknown remains there.

Salon has uncovered further evidence of grave offenses at Arlington National Cemetery. It is now clear that the cemetery, which is managed by the U.S. Army and calls itself "our nation's most sacred shrine," lost track of the identity of remains buried in a grave, and covered up the disturbing discovery for six years. New information also casts doubt on Army statements about when the Army learned of criminal misconduct by a top cemetery official.

Last week Salon reported allegations by former and current employees that headstones and graves do not match in some cases. The article noted internal cemetery documents over the past several years that revealed "information listed on grave cards and burial records were not consistent with the information on the actual headstone." It documented an expensive, 10-year-old effort to computerize operations at Arlington -- a feat cemeteries of similar size and age have achieved relatively quickly and cheaply.

Arlington admitted to the paperwork problems but insisted the confusion stopped at the grave's edge. When asked -- "Has the cemetery ever dug a grave only to find there is already someone there, though the grave is unmarked?" -- cemetery spokeswoman Kaitlin Horst responded, "We are not aware of any situation like that."

But Salon has discovered evidence to the contrary. In 2003, Arlington workers dug into the ground at Grave 449 in Section 68 -- the cemetery had paperwork that said the grave was empty -- to bury somebody who had recently died. They came across remains already interred in that grave. There was no headstone. Soon after the discovery, workers filled out a grave card (obtained by Salon), generally used to note information about each burial site, with an urgent note to colleagues: "do not DO NOT USE!!! CASKET IN GRAVE REMAINS UNKNOWN."

Since Arlington does not know the identity of the remains in Grave 449, there is no way of knowing when the burial occurred. Arlington tends to bury service members who pass away at around the same time in the each section. The graves in Section 68 are generally from the late 1980s through 2008, suggesting the original burial occurred in that era.

In response to a query about Grave 449, Arlington admitted the error. "The identity of the remains in Grave 449 in Section 68 is unknown at this time," Horst admitted. "Arlington National Cemetery officials have known about this situation since 2003, when in the process of preparing for a burial, a casket was discovered in Grave 449 in Section 68," she added. "At that time, a review of records took place to locate the corresponding documents. The files could not be matched and as a result, the card you have described was filed. Following your inquiry this morning, a search for corresponding records in the paper files was conducted and again, proved inconclusive."

This discovery, Horst suggested, had an upside: It "reemphasized" the importance of the project to computerize its records. She noted that grave site 449 is the only example of this kind of screw-up. "At this time, cemetery officials are not aware of any other instances and welcome information to the contrary that suggest any further discrepancies," she said. She did not identify the cemetery official who was the source of the previous misinformation, or the new claim that 449 is an anomaly.

Further evidence of Arlington's malfeasance comes in a new response from the Army's Criminal Investigation Command. Salon reported that Arlington Deputy Superintendent Thurmond Higginbotham was involved in the unauthorized hacking of an employee's government computer. A July 2008 internal Army memo to Lt. Gen. David Huntoon, director of the Army staff, warned of possible e-mail hacking at Arlington.

Salon asked the Army what, if anything, Huntoon did about the allegations. Army spokesman Gary Tallman responded in a statement and suggested that Huntoon alerted the Criminal Investigation Command when he got the memo in July. "The Army viewed the allegations associated with the Cemetery very seriously, as we do any such allegation," Tallman wrote. "Allegations of a criminal nature were referred to, and investigated by, CID."

When recently contacted, a CID official said he heard nothing from Huntoon in July. Agents only heard about the possible unauthorized computer access when Gina Gray, a former public affairs officer at Arlington, alerted investigators in October 2008 that her Army e-mail account had been hacked. CID started its investigation the next day.

"CID became aware of the allegations involving her email account in Oct. 08 and immediately opened an investigation after receiving a sworn statement from the complainant," Chris Grey, CID's chief of public affairs, wrote in a statement to Salon. "According to our investigative records, evidence of someone using the complainant's email account were not known by CID or the complainant until early Oct 08. We are unaware of any previous reports of allegations of criminal misconduct that would have fallen within the investigative responsibility of CID," he wrote. "Any such report would have been examined to determine if there is credible information of a crime, that the crime is within the investigative purview of CID, and that CID has the authority to investigate."

Paul Rieckhoff, executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, expressed shock about Arlington's chaos. He was distressed to hear about the unknown remains in Grave 449, and about the fact that many personal mementos -- letters, photographs and artifacts -- placed on graves in Section 60, the final resting place of 600 troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, have ended up in the trash. "We expect the Armed Services Committee to look into this and that hearings would be appropriate," Rieckhoff said. "Our members are outraged. People are very, very concerned. We expect a response from the Army on this."

By Mark Benjamin

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

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Arlington National Cemetery Investigation