Behind The Shame Of Arlington National Cemetery, A Victory For Journalism

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Nearly a year ago, a former colleague of mine, Salon’s Mark Benjamin, wrote the first in what would soon become a long series of articles about dysfunction at Arlington National Cemetery. Published on July 16, 2009, the story was headlined, “Grave offenses at Arlington National Cemetery,” and it included these paragraphs:

Despite nearly 10 years and countless dollars spent on computerizing its operations, the cemetery still relies mostly on paper burial records that in some cases do not match the headstones. “There are numerous examples of discrepancies that exist between burial maps, the physical location of headstones, and the burial records/grave cards,” the cemetery admitted in a 2008 report to Congress.

And in a relatively remote area of the cemetery, where 600 service members from Iraq and Afghanistan are laid to rest, personal mementos placed on graves are left out to rot in the rain for days, ruined by workers with power washers, or thrown into a trash bin.

“The aesthetics of the cemetery are deceptive,” says Gina Gray, an Army veteran of eight years who served in Iraq and who was the cemetery’s public affairs officer in early 2008, before she was fired over a clash with her boss. “To the naked eye, it is a place of sacred beauty and a tribute to our nation’s heroes,” says Gray, who has been rehired as an Army contractor at Fort Belvoir, in Virginia. “But if you scratch below the surface, you will find that it’s really just window dressing. They’ve put these pretty curtains up to hide the ugliness on the inside.”

In the months that followed, Benjamin produced more revelations, about mementos left for fallen soldiers that were tossed in the trash, about paper grave records that read “unknown,” and about elaborate cover-ups of the problems. In response to the stories, the Army launched a new investigation,  then a second investigation. Then Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley got involved, and the bureaucrat in charge of the cemetery resigned. Today, the Army released the results of its investigation, confirming the problems that Benjamin began identifying nearly a year ago. News organizations are suddenly all over the story, and at the White House briefing today Spokesman Robert Gibbs made a point of condemning the mismanagement of the cemetary.

Mostly lost amid the latest round of hubbub is the role Benjamin played in bringing this outrage to light. If the news had first broke on the front page of the New York Times, I doubt its origin would be so easily passed over. Fewer and fewer news organizations have the willingness or the money to fund this sort of investigative reporting, which is far less able to attract online traffic than political pontification and nipple slips.  Though I am a biased observer, having once worked with Benjamin, I think he and Salon deserve a big heap of credit for this one. The complete Salon series on Arlington can be read here.