Senate bill would keep heat on Arlington cemetery officials

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 28, 2010 

WASHINGTON — A group of senators took steps Tuesday to make sure that the Army answers Congress' concerns about the scandal over unmarked graves at Arlington National Cemetery.

Sens. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., Richard Burr, R-N.C., Scott Brown, R-Mass., Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Connecticut independent Joe Lieberman introduced legislation that would require the secretary of the Army to regularly report to lawmakers on progress fixing a host of problems.

The scandal has created embarrassment for the nation's premier military cemetery, as well as grief and anxiety among people with family members buried there.

"I'm confident that the Army and the cemetery are both taking this very seriously," McCaskill said, "but this legislation will help hold the folks at Arlington accountable for their progress in identifying and fixing any errors in the burial records, changing the way they manage contracts, and for their efforts to reach out to families who are suffering from this unnecessary heartbreak."

An Army inspector general's report in June found a slew of problems at the cemetery and revealed that officials weren't sure who was buried where in many cases. More than 200 graves were improperly marked.

Some gravesites without headstones were labeled as occupied on cemetery maps.

Five years before, burial urns with unidentified cremated remains turned up in a cemetery landfill. Last month, cemetery officials discovered that two people were buried in the wrong plots.

A Senate report this summer noted that the cemetery had spent 10 years and several million dollars to digitize recordkeeping, but the cemetery still relied heavily on index cards to identify graves.

"The more we investigate the gross negligence at Arlington National Cemetery, the more we understand the extent of the mismanagement," Collins said.

McCaskill, the chairman of a Senate government contracting oversight panel, led a hearing in July that called two former cemetery officials — who'd both resigned — to task for the scandal.

The legislation would also require the Government Accountability Office to oversee the changes at Arlington and a new contract for services. It also calls on the GAO to determine whether control of the cemetery should be transferred to the Department of Veterans Affairs, which runs its own system of cemeteries.

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