“This is not something we can sweep under the rug and say, you know, we’ve done the best we can. This is not that kind of problem.”
Those were the words of Missouri Democrat Sen. Claire McCaskill, speaking on the Senate floor Thursday. She was referring to revelations in my recent TIME article about the mushrooming burial scandal at Arlington National Cemetery. That article showed how, in some cases, the Army is stopping short of digging up questionable graves to determine beyond a shadow of a doubt the correct location and identity of mystery remains, and is instead determining the likely identities based on burial records and ground-penetrating radar. The records are notoriously inaccurate and ground-penetrating radar will show the location of remains but not the identity.
McCaskill, whose Senate contracting subcommittee held a hearing on the scandal last summer, didn’t seem to think that process was good enough. She also announced she has written Army Secretary John McHugh demanding some answers about just what is going on as the Army attempts to fix the problems there. Among other things, McCaskill asked in that letter for “the number of gravesites determined to be incorrectly identified, labeled, or occupied and the methodology used to make that determination.”
Meanwhile, there are other problems at Arlington. As it turns out, there’s a reason the thousands of graves closest to the Kennedys seem to be packed with so many high-ranking military officials and politicians, while the far-off corners of the cemetery seem reserved for privates killed in battle.
The former cemetery Superintendent, John Metzler, Jr., was reserving prime spots at the cemetery for powerful people in Washington, a practice in violation of the law and cemetery policy. The Army allowed Metzler to retire unscathed last summer after the scandal at Arlington went national.
The Washington Post today obtained a list of 84 names, mostly generals and colonels, who reportedly have reserved plots at Arlington in this off-the-books system. I first broke the news on the reserved plots story writing at Salon.com last year.
The Code of Federal Regulations, which has the force of law, says that at Arlington, “Gravesites will not be reserved.”
The same is true of cemetery policy. “The next available grave … is assigned for the interment or inurnment,” according to cemetery rules. “Assignment of graves … are without regard to military rank, race, color, creed, or gender of the qualifying service member.”
The new managers at Arlington say they have discontinued this practice and will not honor any off-the-books reservations.