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McHugh addresses graves, management, at Arlington National Cemetery

By C. Todd Lopez

WASHINGTON (June 30, 2010) -- Secretary of the Army John M. McHugh told lawmakers today the Army is working to resolve issues of mishandled gravesites at Arlington National Cemetery and to ensure that the management problems discovered there do not happen again.

The secretary spoke June 30 before the House Armed Services Committee about how he is dealing with the problems at Arlington National Cemetery that were revealed earlier this month in two Army Inspector General reports.

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Chief among those problems were 211 gravesites in the cemetery that were unmarked.

"Our first objective are the 211 graves identified with map discrepancies. We are currently working through those," he said. Thus far, the secretary said, 27 of those discrepancies have been resolved.

The secretary said in each case where there were no remains and the map indicated there should be, no records could be found elsewhere of a burial there or a headstone.

"The map was in error," the secretary said. "Those graves will be reclaimed and used for appropriate purposes."

One lawmaker asked if eventually, the Army could do a similar kind of check against all of the 330,000 burial sites at the cemetery. The secretary said the Army plans to do that, but is awaiting the technology to make it possible.

"It is our intent to do exactly what you suggested -- check the three sources of records currently available -- that is the site map, the actual burial cards and records that are contained in paper -- against tomb stones and actual documentation associated with those," McHugh said. "To do that for some 330,000 graves is going to take a better system of record keeping, and that means the best in information technology."

McHugh said he has already directed the Army's chief information officer/G-6 to "engage" at Arlington to identify the process of how the Army can move forward with an IT solution to track the records there. Currently, the cemetery uses an antiquated map and index-card system.

"As soon as the IT problems are solved, we will begin the process of checking and cross-checking all those records for each of the 330,000-some graves," McHugh said.

Pentagon, McHugh discussed the final report of an IG special inspection of the cemetery. That inspection was directed by McHugh's predecessor, Pete Geren, in August 2009. He also discussed the results of an IG investigation of the cemetery, directed by him, in November 2009.

Another issue at the cemetery involves headstones found in a creek there. Those headstones, the secretary said, are extra grave markers. For instance, when a husband is finally buried next to his wife, the old headstone might be discarded and replaced with a new one. The old one would have been put in the creek.

In the past, it was common practice for government-run cemeteries to use such headstones as construction materials, lining a stream with them for erosion control, for instance, McHugh said.

McHugh said he personally considered the process "distasteful" and said that as of 1994, the Army no longer follows that practice. "They are now broken up," he said.

He also said the Army is now working with the Department of the Interior to find ways to remove the stones from the creek without damaging it.

The secretary told lawmakers that the Army has established a call center to hear the concerns of the family members of those buried at the cemetery. Thus far, he said, the center has received 867 calls.

"Of those, we have resolved 169," he said. "As we go forward we are contacting each and every one of those persons who called in and expressed concern, to update them."

He added that at this time, the Army is not calling those who have not expressed concerns. "For the vast majority of family members ... our conjecture is that they feel confident."

Addressing management issues at the cemetery, the secretary said that he has rescinded "General Order 13."

"That was the governing structure, that in my view, did just about everything but govern," he said. "I have redirected the lines of authority, I've created clear command structure, at the top in terms of cemetery operations by creating the position of executive director of the Army National Cemeteries Program."

McHugh appointed Kathryn Condon as the executive director of the Army National Cemeteries Program. He said Condon reports directly to him and is currently "restructuring things" so cemetery employees know where to go if there is a problem.

The secretary also responded to questions about the possibility of management of the cemetery moving to another agency by saying it would be "rather unfair to burden another agency with an Army challenge," and added that the Army feels it "is the responsibility of the military, particularly in time of war, to carry those heroes to their final resting place."

He told lawmakers "until we are ordered to step down, we are going forward."

McHugh appeared with Lt. Gen. R. Steven Whitcomb, the Army's inspector general. Whitcomb answered questions about the two reports released by his office earlier this month regarding an investigation and a special inspection of the cemetery.

Arlington National Cemetery has been in operation for almost 150 years now. McHugh said the Army has been in part responsible for developing the reputation the cemetery now enjoys. "Clearly, that record has been tarnished," he said. "We are committed fully to regaining that kind of record into the future."

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