Video: Offenses at Arlington lead to change of command

  1. Transcript of: Offenses at Arlington lead to change of command

    BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: Tonight, an awful story is emerging from a sacred place. There has been a change in command at Arlington National Cemetery after the revelation of some terrible problems involving the remains of those who served their country. Our report tonight from our Pentagon correspondent Jim Miklaszewski .

    JIM MIKLASZEWSKI reporting: It's considered the military's most sacred ground , but the Army secretary said today mistakes and mismanagement at Arlington National Cemetery violated the nation's most sacred oath to its fallen.

    Secretary JOHN McHUGH (United States Army): I deeply apologize to the families of the honored fallen resting in that hallowed ground, who may now question the care afforded to their loved ones.

    MIKLASZEWSKI: An Army review released today found troubling problems with at

    least 211 gravesites: veterans buried in the wrong graves, headstones mismarked or missing, a burial urn accidentally dug up and dumped into a pile of dirt. In the most egregious case, the body of one service member was placed on top of another already buried. The problem was discovered when the widow of that first veteran found somebody else's headstone at her husband's grave. As a result, the Army secretary today relieved Arlington superintendent, John Metzler , of his command and issued a stinging letter of reprimand. Deputy Superintendent Thurman Higginbotham was put on immediate administrative leave pending further investigation. But big challenges remain. In today's high-tech world, Arlington still relies on printed note cards to keep track of 320,000 gravesites.

    Ms. GINA GRAY (Former Arlington Public Affairs Director): When a burial ledger from the 1860s is more accurate than their modern-day record keeping, there is a problem there.

    MIKLASZEWSKI: The Army 's still investigating why, after millions of dollars have been spent, Arlington still has no computer database. The Army today created a new position of executive director to oversee all cemetery operations in an effort to fix those long-term systemic problems and restore the nation's promise to its men and women in uniform. Jim Miklaszewski , NBC News, Arlington National

updated 6/11/2010 1:29:14 PM ET 2010-06-11T17:29:14

Arlington National Cemetery received a steady stream of phone calls Friday from families worried that the remains of their loved ones may have been misidentified or misplaced.

Spokeswoman Kaitlin Horst said that 100 people phoned in the first two hours Friday, after the historic burial ground opened a special call center for families of the 300,000 military veterans, war casualties and other dignitaries buried there.

The Army announced Thursday that an investigation found that potentially hundreds of the 300,000 graves at Arlington National Cemetery have been misidentified or misplaced, in a scandal marring the reputation of the nation's pre-eminent burial ground for its honored dead. Since the Civil War, 300,000 have been buried with military honors in the cemetery. An average of 30 funerals are conducted there every day.

Among those buried at the cemetery are troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as service members from past conflicts dating back to the Civil War.

Famous presidents and their spouses, including members of the Kennedy family, also have been buried there. The cemetery, located across the Potomac River from Washington in northern Virginia, attracts more than 4 million visitors annually.

Dismissals
Army Secretary John McHugh announced Thursday that the cemetery's two civilian leaders would be forced to step aside , and he appointed a new chief to conduct a more thorough investigation to examine the graves and sort out the mix-up.

"I deeply apologize to the families of the honored fallen resting in that hallowed ground who may now question the care afforded to their loved ones," McHugh told a Pentagon news conference.

An Army investigation was launched last year after reports of employee misconduct, first reported by the Web site Salon.com.

Led by the service's inspector general, Lt. Gen. Steven Whitcomb, the investigation found lax management of the cemetery, where employees relied on paper records to manage the dozens of burials each week and maintain the thousands of existing gravesites.

Whitcomb said at least 211 remains were identified as potentially mislabeled or misplaced and that there could be more.

"We found nothing that was intentional, criminal intent or intended sloppiness that caused this. ... But of all the things in the world, we see this as a zero defect operation," he told reporters Thursday.

Whitcomb could not say how old the mixed-up remains might be or from what conflict, saying only that the problem had been confined to three areas of the cemetery known as sections 59, 65 and 66.

Correcting mistakes
Whitcomb said he did find two cases of mis-marked graves in section 60, the area for veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan. He said those mistakes had been corrected.

Dorothy Nolte, 68, of Burns, Tenn., said she learned last year that the remains of her sister, Air Force Master Sgt. Marion Grabe, who had been buried at Arlington in March 2008, had been moved to a new grave site. Nolte said she went to Arlington to find out that her sister's urn had been buried on top of another soldier, but then it was disinterred and moved to another grave site. She said she had not been informed of the transfer.

"I made them unearth the urn so I could see the name," Nolte said in a phone interview Thursday from New York. "I have peace knowing my sister is indeed in the right place."

As for the Army investigation, "I think that it's a good thing that the truth is coming out, and it's certainly a situation that needs to be rectified," she said.

Separately, the Army is investigating whether the cemetery's deputy superintendent, Thurman Higginbotham, made false statements to service investigators. Higginbotham, who ran the day-to-day operations at the cemetery, has been accused by former employees of creating a hostile work environment and breaking into their e-mail systems.

Higginbotham is on administrative leave, pending further review.

According to a defense official familiar with the case, who discussed the details on condition of anonymity, Higginbotham won't face criminal charges because of a lack of evidence. But, the official said, the Army will ensure he never works at the cemetery again.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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