Reforms Slated for Arlington National Cemetery

Secretary of the Army John M. McHugh (right) holds a Pentagon press conference, June 10, 2010, to address problems brought to light by a recent investigation of inappropriate practices and mismanagement at Arlington National Cemetery.

Secretary of the Army John M. McHugh (right) holds a Pentagon press conference, June 10, 2010, to address problems brought to light by a recent investigation of inappropriate practices and mismanagement at Arlington National Cemetery.

Within the past few days, much has been said about the neglect and mismanagement at Arlington National Cemetery. Hopefully, remedies are now in motion to correct the errors that were made at this cemetery. A failure to automate records reportedly led to the mis-identification of remains. More than 300,000 veterans have been interred at Arlington National Cemetery from the Civil War through the current Global War on Terrorism.

National Commander Clarence E. Hill, the head of the nation’s largest veterans organization, stated, “We are disturbed any time we hear that our nation’s heroes are treated in an undignified manner,” and praised Army Secretary John McHugh for “decisive action,” in the wake of an Inspector General’s report which revealed mismanagement at this national cemetery.

Commander Hill also stated, “The findings in the report are quite serious but Secretary McHugh is to be commended for taking decisive action to correct what he called ‘dysfunctional management.’ We are pleased that former Senators Bob Dole and Max Cleland will lead an independent panel to eliminate the deficiencies. Our heroes at Arlington gave their all. We must not fail them. The American Legion offers its assistance to correct the problems.”

House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Ranking Member Steve Buyer made the following statement regarding an investigation by the Department of the Army regarding Arlington National Cemetery on 10 June 2010:

“I spoke with Secretary of the Army John McHugh about this investigation this morning, and I commended him for his support of the Inspector General’s investigation, the results of which will be released this afternoon. He took affirmative action to right some wrongs at Arlington and improve standards at one of our nation’s most sacred shrines.

“Secretary McHugh understands the importance of Arlington and the veneration the American people hold for what it symbolizes. He is committed to ensuring that Arlington remains the gold-standard in national cemeteries in both decorum and aesthetic beauty. His integrity in this matter, and pursuit of high standards and excellence at Arlington are worthy of praise.

“Secretary McHugh and I share the perspective that Arlington is in need of a state-of-the-art computer database to track gravesites. I am pleased to hear that efforts are underway to make such progress. The National Cemetery Administration of the Department of Veterans Affairs already employs this type of records system, and Arlington needs one as well.”

The Army inspector general completed a months-long report on June 8 that identified 76 separate deficiencies as well as 101 recommendations to improve operations at Arlington National Cemetery. Most significantly, the report found poor recordkeeping allowed occupied gravesites to be improperly marked or often not marked at all.

The Army stripped Superintendent John Metzler of all authority, but he will remain on staff until his retirement July 2. His deputy, Thurman Higgenbotham, was placed on administrative leave pending additional personnel actions. Both are career federal civil servants.

“A majority of these findings are deeply troubling and unacceptable,” McHugh told reporters today at a Pentagon news conference. “The [inspector general] found Arlington’s mission hampered by dysfunctional management, by a lack of established policies and procedures and an overall unhealthy organizational environment.

The report determined the improper internment of remains, including the loss of accountability for remains, names and graves listed as empty, he said. McHugh also cited improper maintenance and cleaning of graves.

“That all ends today,” he said firmly, later adding that “there’s simply no excuse” for the negative findings in the report.

McHugh established a new position to oversee the Army National Cemeteries Program. Katherine Condon was appointed executive director of the cemeteries program and she “has total supervisory powers pertaining to all business and operational activities associated with Army cemeteries,” the secretary said.

Condon served as the senior civilian for the Army Material Command before accepting the position.

Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki also agreed to lend his department’s expertise in cemetery operations. Patrick K. Hallinan, director of the Office of Field Programs for the VA, will be temporarily reassigned as Arlington’s superintendent. Hallinan currently oversees 130 national cemeteries.

Also, McHugh established an Army National Cemetery Advisory Commission. Former Sens. Bob Dole and Max Cleland are charged with leading the group. Both former legislators have the experience for the job. Dole co-chaired a commission that investigated deficiencies at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in 2007, and Cleland is a former VA secretary.

McHugh said he’s “deeply grateful” for the help he’s enlisted. But more noticeably, the former New York congressman said he was battered with guilt and expressed his apologies to the families of the fallen buried in Arlington.

“On behalf of the United States Army and on behalf of myself, I deeply apologize to the families of the honored fallen resting in that hallowed ground who may now question the care afforded to their loved ones,” he said.

The Army and Arlington National Cemetery will bounce back, McHugh said.

“The Army owes better,” he said. “I’m unable to explain the past, but I can promise this about the future. The United States Army will take every step necessary to fully ensure that every challenge, every need at Arlington is clearly understood and effectively addressed.

“We owe no less to our departed heroes, no less to the loved ones of this nation who, when the call was sounded, stepped forward to serve,” McHugh continued. “The better tomorrows for Arlington National Cemetery begin today.”

With a current membership of 2.5-million wartime veterans, The American Legion was founded in 1919 on the four pillars of a strong national security, veterans affairs, Americanism, and youth programs. Legionnaires work for the betterment of their communities through more than 14,000 posts across the nation.

On 11 June, Army Secretary John McHugh announced the newly-created position of Executive Director (ED) of the Army National Cemeteries Program. The Executive Director has established a call center in order to immediately address family member concerns regarding burial discrepancies at Arlington National Cemetery. The phone number is (703) 607-8199 and will be open from 8 a.m. until 9 p.m. EST beginning Friday, June 11.

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