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Review of markers finds no new problems

- Associated Press - Sunday, November 6, 2011

A painstaking review of nearly 260,000 grave markers at Arlington National Cemetery so far has revealed no further evidence of misplaced or misidentified grave sites like the ones that led the Army to oust the cemetery's top management last year, cemetery officials said at a briefing Friday.

Still, the cemetery has found tens of thousands of lesser discrepancies between the information on headstones and supporting paperwork, requiring review by a team of research analysts and, in some cases, replacement of headstones to fix the error.

The cemetery provided the briefing to Sen. Claire McCaskill, Missouri Democrat, chairwoman of a subcommittee that has investigated what she and others have called widespread mismanagement at the cemetery. An Army inspector general's report last year revealed that more than 200 grave sites were potentially mislabeled or misplaced inside the cemetery. Subsequent investigation determined those were largely paperwork errors as opposed to having actual bodies in the wrong place.

Mrs. McCaskill said Friday that she is encouraged by the thoroughness of the Army's fact-checking process, in which members of the Army's Old Guard - its official ceremonial unit - over the summer used iPhones to photograph every marker at the cemetery, and to build an electronic database to replace what largely had been a system of paper records.

"Most important, I know going forward that we're not going to have this problem again" because of the systems being put in place at the cemetery by its new leadership team, said Mrs. McCaskill, who had been one of the cemetery's most outspoken critics.

Still, Friday's briefing showed the depth of the problems the Army is confronting as it seeks to rectify past mistakes. Roughly one in four of the grave markers checked so far has shown some type of discrepancy between the headstone and the supporting paperwork, officials said. Those problems include misspelled names, mistaken religious affiliations or improperly identified military rank, or mistakes on a person's date of birth or date of death

That doesn't mean that all of those discrepancies represent mistakes. In some cases, the discrepancies reflect past practices that are no longer followed. In the 1920s and 1930s, for instance, it was common to not include a spouse's name on a headstone, even when the spouse was buried next to a loved one, officials said.

Or the headstone could be completely accurate and the only mistake is a typo on an internal document that was never seen by the public. Still, the hiccups require follow-up by a team of 70 analysts sorting through all of the paperwork in advance of a December deadline to file a congressionally mandated report on the cemetery's progress in fixing the mistakes.

Col. John Schrader, co-chairman of a grave site accountability task force, told Mrs. McCaskill that the group has completed 86 percent of its work so far, and has not come across any of the "Who is buried where?" problems that captured headlines in 2009 and 2010.

Cemetery officials have tapped into Army expertise across the country to update and improve their records. Analytics specialists built the software to create a detailed electronic database that replaces the typewritten paper records. Geospatial specialists have conducted flyovers of the cemetery to create detailed maps that can be used to show electronically where people are buried and which grave sites are still available.

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