A fitting Kennedy tribute: Clean up Arlington Cemetery mess

A grateful family remembers Kennedy's work to help them get a more timely funeral for their son killed in Iraq

Published August 29, 2009 10:40AM (EDT)

Funeral planners look over the site where U.S. Senator Edward Kennedy will be buried at Arlington Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia, August 28, 2009. Kennedy died late Tuesday after a battle with cancer.
Funeral planners look over the site where U.S. Senator Edward Kennedy will be buried at Arlington Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia, August 28, 2009. Kennedy died late Tuesday after a battle with cancer.

Thousands of people lined up in a seemingly endless line to pay their last respects to Sen. Ted Kennedy at the J.F.K. library in Boston on Friday, one day before his burial at Arlington National Cemetery. During that procession, a select list of guests had been asked to stand vigil at the senator's side as the visitors filed by. Among them were Kennedy's nephew Bobby Shriver, former staffer Patti Sarris, now a federal judge in Massachusetts, and Tim Hagen, the senator's old college buddy.

A couple from Bedford, Mass., Brian and Alma Hart, had also been asked to stand vigil at Kennedy's side for an hour Friday night. "Basically we were sitting in a chair next to the casket," said Brian Hart, who remembered watching the seemingly endless line of well-wishers stream by, estimated to be in the tens of thousands. "It was something to see."

The Harts are not former staffers or part of the Kennedy family. They became linked to Kennedy, interestingly, through Arlington National Cemetery, where Kennedy would be laid to rest the next day.

The beauty and dignity of a funeral at Arlington, including Kennedy's, is obvious. Because of the Harts, however, Kennedy learned about just a few of the serious problems at Arlington that lurk behind the pristine veneer of the historic cemetery where his brother, John and Robert, are also buried.

The Harts' son John died in Iraq in 2003. At the time, Arlington National Cemetery told his parents they would have to wait weeks before the cemetery would bury John there. "If we waived the chapel service we could get it to six weeks," Hart says the cemetery told him. The family appealed to Kennedy, who intervened on the Harts' behalf. The cemetery cut the wait in half.

Kennedy then attended John's funeral. Working with the Harts, Kennedy also worked tirelessly in the Senate for more armored vehicles, body armor and other equipment that could have saved John's life.

Six years later, however, the delays for funerals for soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan persist at Arlington. That wait time also reflects a pattern of serious, though little known, problems at the storied cemetery. Earlier this month, the New York Post reported that Jill Stephenson, mother of Army Ranger Cpl. Benjamin Kopp, would have to wait until October for her son's funeral, in part because she wanted the full honors for which he was eligible, including a horse-drawn caisson. Kopp died July 18 from wounds suffered a week earlier in Afghanistan.

The article noted that that even though casualties from Iraq and Afghanistan are supposedly Arlington's first priority, families are regularly told they must wait two months for a funeral there. "The fact that that isn't fixed at Arlington baffles me," said Hart. "The whole family life is stuck on hold until that funeral happens."

Other problems include claims by current and former cemetery employees that even in the newest sections of the cemetery, headstones might not match the identities of the bodies beneath and the cemetery has lost track of some remains. To illustrate this point, Salon last month showed how the cemetery dug down in an active part of the graveyard a few years ago and found remains already there, though records showed the plot to be empty. The cemetery, which had denied such problems, now admits that cemetery officials have no idea who is buried there.

The problem is that unlike other similar-sized cemeteries, Arlington has failed to install a system to computerize burial operations and keep track of graves via satellite, despite a ten-year effort and countless dollars spent on the effort. Another Salon article last month showed that a contractor working on that project was particularly close to the de facto boss at Arlington, Deputy Superintendent Thurman Higginbotham, and that Higginbotham and the contractor, Bobbie Garrett, were the focus of an Army investigation that found wire fraud at the cemetery after Higginbotham had Garrett break into an employee's computer there.

Army investigators couldn't find Garrett during the course of their work, but Salon found him operating a new company, Optimum Technical Solutions, in Jacksonville, Fla., and showed that the cemetery had rehired Garrett with a six-figure contract back in June.

U.S. Marshals arrested Garrett in a Columbus, Ohio, airport a few days after Salon began asking the government about him. He faces 14 charges, including child abuse, second-degree sex offenses, third-degree sex offenses, fourth-degree sex offenses, unnatural or perverted practices, and second-degree assault.

Hart's son, John, is buried in section 60 at Arlington, the final resting place of more than 600 troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. As at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, known to many as simply "The Wall," mourners in section 60 decorate the graves with mementos, poems, letters and photographs, particularly around Memorial Day. Unlike the wall, where the artifacts are carefully preserved and literally end up in museums, Arlington throws the lion's share of artifacts left in Section 60 in the trash.

Senators like Kennedy can try to help their individual constituents, but veterans' advocates have been frustrated that no one in Congress or the White House has taken a closer look into the widespread problems at Arlington.

"We continue to be concerned about the revelations at Arlington and we have yet to see an adequate response from Congress or the Army," Paul Rieckhoff, executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said in a recent interview. "Despite national reporting on this, there has yet to be an official response from the president. It is clear that these are not isolated incidents and there are deep-rooted problems at Arlington."

Brian Hart believes soldiers and veterans lost a crucial ally with Kennedy's death. He cited statistics showing vastly increased numbers of armored vehicles, in part, because of Kennedy's work: "Frankly, he saved several thousand lives based on his work on armored vehicles, no doubt about it," Hart says. He is also grateful for Kennedy's work getting a more timely funeral for his son: "We would have had to wait a lot longer to have John buried if it had not been for him."

Since John's funeral, Hart has visited Arlington with Kennedy on several occasions, privately, most recently in January 2007. Kennedy expressed concern about the similarities between Iraq and Vietnam and about leaving troops in Iraq too long. Brian talked to Victoria Kennedy last night, and they agreed they would visit Arlington again together soon.

Kennedy liked to visit Arlington early in the morning, Hart recalled. "He said the best time to have private time in a public space was early in the morning."


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