The mismanagement and neglect at Arlington National Cemetery over records relating to veterans’ grave sites now appears much more far-reaching than officials previously disclosed, according to a Senate hearing Thursday.
The number of misidentified graves could be as high as 6,600, said Sen. Claire McCaskill, chairwoman of an oversight panel of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee. The Army inspector general’s office had recently estimated the number at only 211.
Right now, just three of the cemetery’s 70 sections, holding a total of roughly 330,000 graves, have been examined.
Mrs. McCaskill, Missouri Democrat, and Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown, the panel’s ranking Republican member, cited poor record keeping, contract problems and lack of oversight by Army officials. But they directed most of their outrage and frustration toward former cemetery Superintendent John C. Metzler Jr., who acknowledged knowing about the grave identification problems as far back as 2003.
“The notion that you would come in here and didn’t know about [problems] until a month ago is offensive,” Mrs. McCaskill said. “You did know about it, and you did nothing.”
Mr. Metzler, a former Army helicopter pilot who managed the cemetery from 1990 until retiring in 2010, amid reports about the national cemetery’s problems, took responsibility for the mistakes.
“I was the senior government official in charge, and I accept full responsibility for all of my actions and my team’s actions,” he said.
Mr. Metzler also apologized to the families affected by the mistakes, but said staff reductions and the burden of having to coordinate and support 3,000 burial ceremonies annually contributed to the problems. Among the instance of neglect cited: grave markers that were found abandoned in a cemetery creek and cremation urns dumped in a landfill.
Mr. Brown was clearly frustrated with some of Mr. Metzler’s answers.
“I’d have a lot of fun with you in a deposition because I don’t think we’re getting straight talk here,” said Mr. Brown, a lawyer.
Lawmakers focused on why the cemetery still uses a paper system to track grave sites and has no computer-based system, despite spending as much as $8 million in contracts to make the transition.
Thurman Higginbotham, the cemetery’s deputy secretary who was in charge of computer contracts, declined to answer most questions, invoking his Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination. He also retired last year.
Asked by Mrs. McCaskill why Arlington did not use the Veterans Affairs Department’s automated system, Mr. Metzler said he could never get involved parties to meet.
Claudia L. Tornblom, an Army assistant secretary whose duties include oversight of some cemetery projects, acknowledged being defensive about Office of Management and Budget contract concerns in part because she had only limited authority. But she acknowledged under intense questioning by Mrs. McCaskill that she would have handled the situation differently now.
• Joseph Weber can be reached at email@example.com.
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