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Army: Some Arlington markers may need replacement

Thousands of grave markers at Arlington National Cemetery may need to be replaced or added to accurately account for the dead, following an Army review.
Image: Arlington National Cemetary
Members of the U.S. Army Old Guard place flags at gravesites at Arlington National Cemetery on May 27, 2010 in Arlington, Va. It has been disclosed that a minimum of 200 remains of U.S. service members have been misplaced or misidentified at Arlington National Cemetery. The information was released following a report by the U.S. Army Inspector General that resulted in the cemetery's two civilian leaders being removed from their positions. Mark Wilson / Getty Images file
/ Source: The Associated Press

Thousands of grave markers at Arlington National Cemetery may need to be replaced or added to accurately account for the dead, following a meticulous Army review of each of the nearly 260,000 headstones and niche covers on the grounds.

In a report to Congress on Thursday, the Army found potential discrepancies between headstones and cemetery paperwork on about 64,000 grave markers — about one in four.

Congress ordered the review last year following reports of misidentified and misplaced graves that led to the ouster of the cemetery's top executives.

The report found no further evidence of misplaced graves, though it cautioned that its review is not complete and that some errors could have gone undetected.

There are potentially thousands of minor errors, including misspelled names, or incorrect military ranks and dates of birth and death.

The Army compared information on every headstone to its internal records, scouring handwritten logs of the dead from the Civil War and a hodgepodge of other records to verify accuracy.

In an interview, the cemetery's executive director, Kathryn Condon, said reviews are ongoing and it's premature to try to estimate exactly how many headstones may need replacement.

To be sure, many of the 64,000 discrepancies will turn up no problem with a headstone — it may be as simple as a typo on an internal record. And in many cases, the discrepancies are not errors at all but reflect past practices at the cemetery that are now considered outdated.

One of the biggest surprises uncovered by the review was that in most of the early 20th century, the cemetery did not include the name of a wife on a headstone when she was buried next to her husband. Under current practices, the name of the spouse is etched onto the back of the headstone.

Condon said the cemetery will correct that by adding the spouse's name to the gravesite. She said it is not only the right thing to do but is also required by law.

Accounting for the forgotten spouses alone will require thousands of corrections, officials said. In some cases, replacement headstones will be made. In cases where the headstones are considered historic, footstones will be added.

The Army and a team of 70 analysts are undertaking painstaking reviews of every case where they find a potential discrepancy to ensure that records are made accurate. Those reviews are expected to be completed in the summer.

The process began with a hand count, using simple mechanical clickers, of every gravesite — 259,978 to be exact. (More than 300,000 people are buried at Arlington, but some grave markers have two or more names.) Then, during the summer, members of the Army's ceremonial Old Guard unit used iPhones to photograph the front and back of every headstone, so the information could be compared against internal records.

Officials cited Christian Keiner, a Civil War veteran from New York who died in 1919, as a typical example. The headstone reflected only his name, but internal records showed that his wife, Caroline Keiner, had also been buried there in 1915. In addition, the internal records spelled Caroline Keiner's name as "Kiner." Officials reviewed handwritten Census records from 1900 and Civil war-era military and pension records to confirm that "Keiner" was indeed the correct spelling.

John Schrader, co-chair of the Gravesite Accountability Task Force, said recordkeeping methods varied widely over the cemetery's 147-year history, from handwritten logs to index cards, to typewritten forms and two different computer databases. That sometimes compounded problems, as transcription errors were common. To avoid those problems, all of the old records have been scanned and digitized, rather than transcribed, to avoid introducing further errors, he said.

The sheer size of the cemetery also made the task difficult. It is the second-largest cemetery in the country as well as a tourist site that draws more than 4 million visitors a year, all while conducting nearly 30 burials a day, some with full military honors.

The most significant part of the review, Condon said, is that the cemetery for the first time has a single, reliable database that will allow officials to fix past mistakes and plan for the future.

The cemetery is currently testing an interactive, web-based version of its database that will allow visitors to click on a digital map to see gravesites and learn who is buried there, ensuring the cemetery's records are open and accessible going forward.

"We'll have 300 million American fact-checkers," Schrader said.