The Army opens a broad new probe into Arlington Cemetery

The move comes in the wake of a Salon investigation, but results so far are mixed

Published November 13, 2009 10:01PM (EST)

In the wake of a Salon investigation, the Army Friday announced a broad investigation into “lost accountability” at some graves at Arlington National Cemetery, along with shoddy record keeping and other issues at the cemetery.

Army Secretary John McHugh ordered the inquiry after a series of articles in Salon showed the cemetery found an unknown casket in a grave in 2003, covered it up with dirt and quietly walked away, and also buried another service member in the wrong plot in 2008 on top of a soldier already in that grave. In that second case, the cemetery also failed to alert family members when they dug up and moved remains to fix the problem. The Salon reports suggested these kinds of errors could be widespread, since the cemetery has failed to implement a computer system to track burials as other cemeteries have, despite nearly a decade of work and nearly $6 million spent on the effort.

“As the final resting place of our nation’s heroes, any questions about the integrity or accountability of (Arlington’s) operations should be examined in a manner befitting their service and sacrifice,” McHugh said in a statement. He directed the Army inspector general to spearhead this new inquiry.

The Army on Friday also released the results of a previous inquiry sparked by Salon’s first report on the unknown casket quietly covered up in 2003. The Army says “non-invasive geophysical analysis … strongly suggest[s]” that the unknown casket is either a husband or a wife who died years apart that should have been buried together in a nearby grave. (Spouses are stacked together in one grave at Arlington.)

Instead, the Army says, the pair was somehow placed near each other in separate graves. This seems unlikely, since it would have required engineers to dig in the wrong spot to bury the second spouse right near the previous spouse’s headstone -- which would have showed the correct grave location. It would also require engineers to go and bury the second spouse and not notice that the first spouse wasn’t in the grave already. The Army said it will not exhume the unknown casket and perform a DNA analysis to be sure of the identity of the unknown there. Instead, they will simply order a new headstone.

McHugh also ordered the inspector general to look into why the Army did nothing but cover up the unknown with dirt and grass from 2003 until 2009, when Salon revealed the problem.

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 War Room