The Army’s top spokesman, Maj. Gen. Stephen R. Lanza, wrote TIME Managing Editor Rick Stengel on April 1, alleging I had committed an “omission of fact” in my recent article about the burial scandal at Arlington National Cemetery.
The problem, according to Lanza, is that I had ignored the notion that, by law, the Army cannot dig up remains at Arlington – unless it has a good reason to do so. The Code of Federal Regulations (32 CFR 553.19 for all you attorneys out there) says that graves can only be dug up for “cogent reasons.”
My article was about disturbing errors and discrepancies in Arlington’s internal burial paperwork that call into question the identity and location of remains. TIME reprinted burial documents showing one service member seemingly buried in two separate graves, and two unrelated service members listed as being buried in the same grave.
In an interview, cemetery chief Kathryn Condon had repeatedly expressed her reluctance to disinter remains in most cases, which troubles veterans.
Lanza alleges I misstated the conditions under which the Army would disinter because, according to the law, Condon’s hands are tied. “Simply put, there are limits to what actions the cemetery has the authority to take without evidence of a discrepancy,” Lanza wrote in a letter to the editor.
I called Lanza to try to better understand his concern. Lanza agreed that Condon can, in fact, dig to determine the identity of remains when burial paperwork errors or discrepancies raise identity questions – the precise errors and discrepancies listed in my article.
“Let me see if I can clarify this for you,” Lanza said. “If she finds an error, okay, or if a family member says something is wrong and has documentation, then that would be considered a cogent reason,” he said.
I wanted to be crystal clear. “If she finds a discrepancy, that is a cogent reason?” I asked. “Correct?”
“If she finds a discrepancy, that is a cogent reason,” Lanza confirmed.
“Okay,” I said, just to be certain. “In those cases – which is all my article is about – she says she is not going to dig,” I reported, unless next of kin absolutely insist.
Lanza responded by saying that Condon had dug up remains in one case because a family had “banged their hand on the table” and insisted. (Digging in that case ultimately revealed a domino-like series of not one, but three burial mistakes that then had to be rectified.)
Lanza said he just wanted to be clear that Condon cannot just go out and dig up an entire “area” of the cemetery, something that was never brought up in my article.