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Arlington Cemetery scandals prompt dismissals

/ Source: NBC News

A number of scandals at Arlington National Cemetery, including one in which a service member's body was buried on top of another, cost the top two administrators their jobs, Pentagon officials said Thursday.

Army Secretary John McHugh announced that Arlington National's superintendent, John Metzler, would be relieved of his duties and that his deputy, Thurman Higginbotham, would be placed on immediate administrative leave, pending further investigation.

McHugh told a Pentagon press conference that the investigation found 211 graves where there were problems of misidentification or improper record keeping. There also are claims that Higginbotham had illegally hacked into the computer files of a former Arlington employee.

Over the past couple of years, officials said, some of the 300,000 graves at Arlington were improperly marked and in some cases bodies were buried in the wrong graves.

In 2008, an Air Force master sergeant was buried on top of a staff sergeant already in the grave, but the error wasn't discovered until the widow of the first service member buried there complained to authorities that someone else's headstone had been placed on her husband's grave. 

Metzler and Higginbotham have come under heavy criticism for not creating a computer database of gravesites. Records of the hundreds of thousands buried at Arlington National are still kept in paper files.

"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," Whitcomb told reporters Thursday.

The Army said it plans a more thorough investigation of the questioned grave sites under the new management.

Kaitlin Horst, Arlington National's spokesperson, said all scheduled funerals at the cemetery would still be held. Family members with questions are urged to call the cemetery at 703-607-8000.

The Army is investigating whether 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.

While Metzler announced in May that he intends to retire on July 2, Department of Defense and Army officials say he is being forced to step down with a letter of reprimand that blames him for failing to rein in Higginbotham's mistakes.

Taking their place will be Kathryn Condon, a former civilian head of Army Materiel Command who as executive director will in charge of fixing any burial errors. Patrick Hallinan, a director with the Veterans Affairs Department, is temporarily being assigned as the cemetery's superintendent.

McHugh also announced the creation of an independent advisory commission that will be led by former senators and Army veterans Max Cleland and Bob Dole. 

Metzler, 62, has worked for the government for 42 years. He is the son of John C. Metzler Sr., who preceded him as cemetery superintendent.

In a , Metzler responded to the charges against him. "Nobody here is doing anything malicious," he said. "Sure, mistakes get made . . . Does anyone run a perfect organization?"