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New rules at Arlington Cemetery after grave mix-ups

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Arlington National Cemetery announced it has implemented new rules and procedures after a series of grave mix-ups. Cemetery officials testified on Capitol Hill to explain the changes.

(Photo: Associated Press)

A retired Air Force colonel was among those at the hearing. His wife's grave was wrongly marked for five years. Col. William Koch told Congressional leaders about sending flowers to what he thought was his wife's resting place for years.

"I sent wreaths at Christmas, I even took her mother up here so she could see her daughter's grave site and all she saw was a headstone and an empty grave," he said.

Army investigators found hundreds of mix-ups, including wrongly marked or empty graves, one with eight sets of cremated remains, and some remains which could not be identified.

"I think the best way to describe it is a culture of incompetence," said Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo.

The hearing was meant to examine the progress at Arlington Cemetery since an investigation last year uncovered the problems. Officials with the cemetery testified they have added staff, equipment and implemented new rules to avoid mistakes in the future. The cemetery is starting to put non bio-degradable tags on each casket and paint numbers on the concrete lids over graves.

One lawmaker said that that's not enough progress. And a family advocacy group warned about the emotional toll taken by the most "invasive measures" the cemetery has used so far to correct the problems, such as digging up remains and DNA testing.

Arlington officials wants to "establish accountability"

An Army Inspector General report in June found there were at least 211 discrepancies between burial maps and grave sites - that is, the location of some people's remains were incorrectly recorded on some maps. Officials found cemetery operations were poorly managed, understaffed and antiquated. Employees still rely on paper records to keep track of more than two dozen interments a day and to maintain existing sites where some 300,000 troops, spouses and U.S. dignitaries have been laid to rest since 1864.

Kathryn A. Condon, executive director since previous management was pushed out, told lawmakers that officials have hired more people, "establishing leadership positions and accountability where none existed before." They also have bought equipment to do a more professional job on burials and automated some parts of the operation, though have not yet computerized burial records.

She said she hoped these moves demonstrate progress has been made "to restore the nation's confidence in Arlington National Cemetery."

Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va., the chairman of the committee's Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, said it wasn't enough. "There is no question that the Department of the Army recognizes the importance of resolving outstanding accountability issues," he said. "However, progress toward full restoration and resolution of these issues has been unsatisfactory and is in no way commensurate with the service and sacrifice of our fallen warriors."

As Condon and other newly appointed officials worked since last summer to unravel the problems, officials have crossed checked mountains of paper records, opened some graves and in one known case opened a casket, verifying that it did, indeed, contain the correct remains.

Military families disturbed by errors, uncertainty

The Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, a national group that helps families of the fallen, said in a letter to the committee that the government must be careful in how it handles affected families.

"It is important ... that the concerns of surviving military families be included in the public dialogue regarding rectifying burial issues at Arlington ... especially as this public discussion may prompt increasing calls for invasive measures such as dis-interment of remains and DNA testing," the group known as TAPS said.

"Many families have told us that disturbing a grave site, moving remains or questioning the location of remains has complicated their grief journey and caused emotional distress," the letter said.

The group recommended that Arlington set up a page on its website to explain the steps it's taking, set up an advisory group on the issue and involve trained bereavement counselors who can talk with families concerned about where their loved ones are buried.

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