Another mystery grave at Arlington Cemetery

An Army investigation has found yet another unmarked casket at the historic burial site

Published November 23, 2009 2:01AM (EST)

An engineering technician who works on burials at Arlington National Cemetery provided a startling sworn statement about misplaced remains at the cemetery to an Army investigating officer in late July.

The Army launched an internal investigation last summer after Salon began exposing burial errors at the cemetery, including a fiasco in May 2003 in which the cemetery went to bury a Navy captain in grave 449 of section 68 of the cemetery, only to find unknown, unmarked remains already there.

“Have there been any other discoveries of casketed remains in what could be considered unoccupied, unmarked gravesites?” the investigating officer asked the technician, who was under oath. The Army released that sworn statement Nov. 13, along with the rest of the investigation.

“Yes,” the technician answered. The technician then divulged that in January of this year, workers also went to bury someone in grave 1186 in section 42 of the cemetery – supposedly an empty grave – only to find another unmarked casket there also. “There was a casket in the plot that the operator had excavated when preparing for the daily funeral at site 1186,” he told the officer. (The Army blacked out most of the cemetery workers' names in the report.)

Five days later, the officer interviewed another cemetery employee involved in burials. “Do you have any knowledge of equipment operators discovering a casket in section 42 in January 2009?” the officer asked, referencing the grave that was supposed to be empty at that time. “Yes,” the employee responded.

The officer asked what the employee saw in that grave, 1186, after workers had begun digging in the supposedly empty plot. The employee responded, “A half open grave with a casket.”

In other words, the Army launched an investigation following Salon’s report on the unknown remains in grave 449, and in the process discovered another case just like it, this time in grave 1186. The investigating officer then studied both graves, according to a copy of the report released by the Army on Nov. 13.

This article is the first to report on the mix-up with that grave, 1186. The cemetery also claims in the Army investigation to have figured out the identity of the remains in that grave, 1186, as well as the identity of the remains in grave 449 – without lifting a shovel.

Although other large cemeteries years ago implemented computerized systems to handle burial records and track grave locations with precision via satellite, Arlington has failed to do the same despite a decade of effort and spending nearly $6 million, mostly on a small band of shady contractors. Instead, the cemetery relies on a flurry of paper records to track nearly 30 burials a day. Paper goes missing, people familiar with cemetery operations claim, and so do some remains and headstones.

When Salon first began asking about these issues last summer, the cemetery argued that while paper records are sometimes amiss, the confusion stops at the grave’s edge, and all remains are in their correct place. Salon then began proving the existence of unknown remains at the cemetery. The cemetery has since admitted that there are unknown remains and that other burial mistakes have been made, but characterized those as rare aberrations. The Army opened this internal investigation in response to Salon’s reporting.

The most recent example reported in Salon was that the cemetery in January 2008 accidentally buried an Air Force master sergeant on top of an unrelated staff sergeant and did not realize it until the widow of the staff sergeant discovered the master sergeant’s headstone above her husband’s grave in May 2008. In that case, the cemetery dug up and moved the urn for the Air Force master sergeant into a new grave without telling the next of kin anything about the mix-up or the new grave -- despite telling Salon on the record that the family had been notified. The family learned the whole story from Salon. (This incident was not included in this Army investigation.)

The unknown remains in grave 449 reported by Salon last summer seem particularly scandalous for Arlington, because of the cemetery’s response when it discovered them back in May 2003: Officials covered up the unknown remains with dirt and grass and walked away, leaving the grave unmarked until Salon confronted the cemetery six years later.

This new Army investigation report shows a similar response by cemetery officials in the case of the remains uncovered early this year in grave 1186. In this case, as well, officials covered that casket with dirt and grass. The report blacks out the name of the cemetery official who instructed workers to simply “close the gravesite” in response to the discovery. The cemetery then prepared a paper record for that grave that read, simply, “obstructed,” according to the Army investigation.

There are other similarities to the unexpected remains in grave 449 first reported by Salon and this new one, 1186, that popped up in the Army investigation. According to the investigation, the cemetery now says it knows the likely identities of the remains in both grave 449 and grave 1186. Notably, the cemetery claims it figured out the identities of the remains not by digging up and identifying the remains in those caskets, but for the most part by looking at the burial records from surrounding graves and surmising the likelihood that remains from one of the surrounding graves likely ended up in the wrong spot. The cemetery insists that no one should be disinterred to be sure of the identity of the remains. The Army investigation said family members likewise opposed disinterring the remains.

The cemetery’s explanation of the identity of the remains in grave 449, which Salon wrote about last summer, is complicated. The cemetery told the investigating officer that in May 1980, workers were supposed to bury the wife of an Air Force lieutenant colonel in grave 549. Workers were then supposed to bury her husband, the lieutenant colonel, in December 1988 on top of her in the same grave, 549. (Stacking family caskets in one grave is a common practice at Arlington to preserve precious space.)

The theory cemetery officials told the Army investigator is that workers probably buried the wife in the correct spot, 549, in 1980, but mistakenly buried her husband in an adjacent grave, 449, in December 1988, instead of in 549 with his wife. The unnamed investigating officer seems to treat this theory with some skepticism in the Army report. “It is possible that either of them could have been mistakenly interred in grave 449,” the officer says about the husband and wife who should have been together in grave 549. The officer adds that this theory is only a “possibility.”

Although the Army released the investigation results on Nov. 13, it was actually formally completed on Oct. 7. Sources say it was shared with the cemetery superintendent, John Metzler, soon after completion.

Metzler was apparently rattled by the investigating officer’s concerns. He subsequently hired a team of geo-archaeologists from John Milner Associates, of West Chester, Pa., to study the two graves, 549 and 449, using ground-penetrating radar and an electrical-resistance sounding device. According to the geo-archeologists’ findings, which the Army released to Salon, there is likely only one casket each in graves 449 and 549. This would seem to reinforce the plausibility of the cemetery’s theory.

The geo-archeologists warn in their report, however, that while they think there is only one casket in each grave, they can't be certain: “Since geophysics is a non-invasive method, archeological excavation or ‘ground truthing’ of anomalies is typically recommended for a more complete assessment.”

But when the Army released the investigation report, it appears Metzler’s work with ground-penetrating radar had satisfied investigators that no digging was needed to confirm the identity of any remains. “Cemetery records, the [Army] investigation, and the non-invasive geophysical analysis of the grave sites strongly indicate that a husband and wife, who died years apart and should have been buried in the same gravesite, were instead buried in adjacent graves,” an Army spokesman, Col. Dan Baggio, said in a statement when the Army report was released on Nov. 13.

According to the investigation, the cemetery also knows the identity of the other set of remains, in grave 1186, which came to light during the investigation into the remains in grave 449. The cemetery told the Army investigating officer that three caskets, a family, were buried right next door in grave 1185. The cemetery argues that one of those three caskets was buried too far to the right – so far that it ended up in the wrong grave, 1186.

The investigating officer said paper records do show that one of the caskets next door was “farther off-set to the right than normal.” The officer characterized the cemetery’s argument that the grave was so far right it ended up in the wrong plot as a “logical explanation” with no further discussion about digging up the remains in 1186 to be sure. The Army made no statement about this grave when the investigative report was released on Nov. 13.

Interestingly, the Army report adds that the cemetery superintendent, Metzler, ordered the paper burial records for that grave, 1186, altered on Aug. 21, 2009, a day that the investigating officer was at Arlington conducting interviews. The report says Metzler had the burial records that simply said “obstructed” replaced with a more complete explanation. The new burial record says, “Gravesite obstructed by casket from grave 1185.” It adds, “Card updated Aug. 21, 2009 by (blacked out). Reviewed by John Metzler.”

Although the Army released the report on Nov. 13, nobody in the media has written about the contents except Salon. On the day the Army released that investigation, Nov. 13, Secretary of the Army John McHugh also announced a new, broader investigation into burial snafus and poor record keeping at Arlington. The Army inspector general will conduct this next probe.

By Mark Benjamin

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

MORE FROM Mark Benjamin

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Arlington National Cemetery Investigation