The superintendent of the premier US military cemetery has been reprimanded after an investigation found that it had lost track of remains in 211 graves, US Army officials said Thursday.
The investigation by the army’s inspector general was launched in November at the Arlington National Cemetery following a series of scandals involving mishandling of remains of US soldiers and veterans.
The cemetery, visited by four million people each year, is the resting place of two presidents, a dozen Supreme Court justices, other famous Americans and casualties of all US wars.
The probe found that the cemetery lost track of an urn of cremated remains and a casket of remains and buried an urn of cremated remains on top of an unrelated service member’s casket.
In at least four instances, cremated remains were removed from gravesites by mistake and later found in an area where excess dirt was dumped.
“One set of cremated remains were re-buried as ‘unknown’ because there were no identifying marks on the urn,” the report said.
It found at least one instance in which next of kin were not notified when remains were moved to a new location, and it took the cemetery six years to identify the remains in one unmarked grave.
“The report determined the improper interment and trans-interment of remains, to include the loss of accountability of remains, remains in graves listed as empty, unmarked gravesites, improperly marked graves and improper handling of cremated remains,” said Army Secretary John McHugh.
He said the findings were “both deeply troubling and simply unacceptable.”
McHugh said anomalies discovered during the investigation involved 211 graves, most of them in three sections of the cemetery that hold the graves of service members who fought in wars before the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Two mismarked graves were found in another section of the cemetery that holds more recent dead from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Evidence established repeated instances of improperly marked gravesites at ANC, and several occasions where these errors were first brought to an ANC official’s attention after complaints by family members,” the report said.
McHugh said the cemetery’s superintendent, John Metzler, had received a letter of reprimand blaming him for the failures but would keep his job until his retirement on July 2.
In the letter to Metzler, the army secretary expressed regret that the probe’s findings “will likely overshadow your 19 years of dedicated, faithful and selfless service as superintendent of ANC.”
The deputy superintendent, Thurman Higgenbotham, was placed on administrative leave pending a disciplinary review, McHugh said.
A senior army official, Kathryn Condon, was appointed to a new position in charge of overseeing the national cemeteries.
Condon will have the job of figuring out how to correct the errors that were uncovered. Officials would not say whether graves would have to be dug up to determine who was inside.
Meanwhile, the officials said that a separate investigation was still under way into other allegations of misconduct, including accusations that employees’ emails were hacked into and issues involving contracts to automate cemetery records.
Created in 1864 on the estate of defeated Confederate general Robert E Lee, Arlington cemetery now has over 300,000 graves.
Eligibility for burial there is restricted to active duty and retired military and some family members, decorated veterans, US presidents and supreme court justices who served in the military.
It maintains an intense schedule with 27 burials a day, four at a time and often with full military honors.
But the investigation found that morale among employees was low and faulted what it said was an atmosphere of “turmoil, distrust, mismanagement.”