Friday, June 25, 2010

Burial load, poor records stress Arlington site

Scott Adams, 46, carries his daughter Alyssa Adams, 13, followed by his niece Charlotte Akers, 3, as he and other family members visit his father's grave site in Section 66 of Arlington National Cemetery in Northern Virginia.

ARLINGTON, Va. — After the Army announced that Arlington National Cemetery mishandled the remains of more than 200 troops, Margaret Timmons decided to trek out to her husband's headstone on Sunday to make sure he was still where she laid him to rest 34 years ago.

The plot of her husband, Navy Senior Petty Officer Jerome Timmons, is near the corner of Bradley and MacArthur drives in Section 66, one of the cemetery areas where the Army says it uncovered several cases of misidentified or improperly buried remains.

With a bouquet of red carnations and her youngest daughter by her side, Timmons felt a bit more at peace after visiting her husband's grave, which appeared to be in good shape. But Timmons, 75, of New Carrolton, Md., said she's disturbed about the situation.

"I am really shocked. This is the most prestigious cemetery in the world," said Timmons, whose husband served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. "I just can't believe they let this happen."

ARLINGTON VISITORS: Cemetery mix-up 'upsetting'

By Sunday, spokeswoman Kaitlin Horst said the cemetery had received more than 500 calls from family members concerned about their loved ones' grave sites.

Aggrieved family members, veterans groups and members of Congress are all asking the same question: How could officials at Arlington — the hallowed final resting place of presidents, generals, astronauts and troops that fought in conflicts going back to the Civil War — let this happen?

The Veterans of Foreign Wars believes one explanation could be an antiquated record-keeping system that is used to keep track of the 330,000 servicemembers buried at the sprawling cemetery.

Cemetery officials use handwritten, 3-by-5 index cards to track the graves and maps of the cemetery are sometimes inaccurate, according to an Army report released last week.

From 2002 to 2009, officials at Arlington awarded more than 35 contracts valued at more than $5.5 million to help digitize records — an effort that largely failed, according to the report. Army investigators said the lack of an automated system contributed to repeated mistakes in the interment process.

"This is the year 2010," said Joe Davis, a VFW spokesman. "Electronic record-keeping is not a new thing. This is off-the-shelf technology."

By comparison, the Department of Veterans Affairs has automated records for its 131 cemeteries in 39 states and Puerto Rico. The VA has a website that allows users to locate graves using basic biographical information of a veteran, Katie Roberts, the VA press secretary, said Sunday.

The VA introduced its online grave locator in 2004, spokesman Drew Brookie said.

Perhaps further complicating matters is the spike in demand for Arlington burials, said Robert Fells of the International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association, a trade group.

Troop deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan and rising numbers of veterans dying from World War II, Korea and Vietnam have forced delays in Arlington burials of up to six weeks, the Army report said.

The Army said Arlington held 2,740 funerals in 1972. Now, it handles 6,400 services annually.

Still, digitizing could have helped avoid mistakes, Fells said. "It's much easier to save them on a computer," he said.

Former Navy aviator Dan Coffman, who was visiting the cemetery on Sunday, said the mistakes were unforgivable and the mismanagement astounding. The cemetery's superintendent, John Metzler, announced before the report was made public last week that he will retire July 2.

"I know the politicians love to play the blame game, and I'm always critical of that," said Coffman, 77, after touring the cemetery with his wife and daughter. "But in this case I am not. I hope heads start rolling."

After visiting her father's grave on Sunday, Megan Timmons-Nies, 39, said she's unsettled by the problems at Arlington, a place her dad first took her only two weeks before he died.

Her mother, Margaret Timmons, said she still wants to be buried with her husband at his plot in Section 66. Timmons-Nies has called cemetery officials and asked them to confirm that it is, indeed, her father who has buried under his headstone. "It's a little unnerving or unsettling to think you can be buried with someone you think is your spouse but may not be due to what they refer to as mishaps," she said.

Family members concerned about Arlington grave sites can call 703-607-8000.

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