Arlington Cemetery chief's reprimand will disappear in a month

Letter will be removed from Metzler's file when he leaves Dept. of Army - which he'll do July 2

Published June 11, 2010 8:30PM (EDT)

The Army reacted to reports of unmarked and misidentified graves at the Arlington Cemetery Thursday by demoting superintendent John Metzler and sending him a letter of reprimand. But before bells ring for justice finally served, read the letter a little closer: It will be in his file for less than a month.

Metzler has been accused of not reining in his deputy superintendent, Thurman Higginbotham, as he lost track of remains, leading to bodies piled on top of one another, sites improperly identified and remains popping up in supposedly empty grave sites, a situation that went on for six years.

A yearlong Salon investigation into mismanagement at the cemetery led to the Army investigation that resulted in Metzler's demotion.

Metzler’s letter of reprimand (PDF), posted on the Army’s website yesterday, has the subject heading: “Official Reprimand – Three years,” but Clause 6 reads that though the memorandum will be filed in his official personnel folder for three years, it is not permanent, and may be withdrawn upon "your separation from the Department of Army." Metzler announced only last month that he would be retiring July 2. Why even announce a three-year reprimand if he’ll be off the hook in less than a month?

The memorandum stresses that Metzler’s failures include not "executing oversight and management responsibilities” properly as well as having a “dysfunctional relationship between you and your Deputy.” After all, it was Higginbotham who screwed up burial records and helmed the failed effort to manage burials electronically. Army Secretary John McHugh said he felt the punishments were "appropriate given the context and the content of the findings," but Salon’s investigation has repeatedly revealed that Metzler’s fault is not simply ignorance of what his deputy was up to.

In November, Metzler told Army investigators Higginbotham did not inform him that workers had discovered unmarked remains at the cemetery in 2003. But the deputy had a different account. In a sworn statement to an Army officer conducting the investigation, he said he had “informed him that we probably have a thousand or more typographical and missing data errors out there,” and that Metzler responded that “he did not agree that we had that many.”

By Miranda Simon

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Arlington National Cemetery Investigation