House panel holds hearing on Arlington Cemetery
WASHINGTON (AP) - The Army's acting inspector general told a House subcommittee Friday that there has been a dramatic turnaround in the operation of Arlington National Cemetery, just one year after his office issued a harsh assessment that cited misplaced remains among dozens of problems caused by mismanagement.
Maj. Gen. William McCoy testified that the cemetery's new leaders, including Executive Director Kathryn Condon and Superintendent Patrick Hallinan, have essentially fixed dozens of deficiencies identified in last year's report.
"Simply put, the mismanagement we found last year does not exist," McCoy told a joint subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee. "I am confident Arlington National Cemetery is being run as well as possible."
In 2009, press reports documented extensive troubles at the cemetery, the final resting place for hundreds of thousands of veterans and a tourist site that draws 4 million visitors a year. Those reports, as well as an internal Army investigation, ultimately uncovered as many as 211 graves that were either unmarked or misidentified. In one instance, eight urns containing cremated remains were found in a single unmarked grave.
Federal prosecutors have launched a criminal probe.
McCoy also credited the cemetery with rapidly and compassionately addressing family members' concerns about whether their loved ones' remains were properly buried. He said the cemetery received 1,300 inquiries in the last year, and in all but 13 cases the cemetery was able to check and reassure the families that no problem exists. Of the remaining 13, eight were related to the urns found in the unmarked grave.
The cemetery's new executive director, Kathryn Condon, testified that the cemetery has made significant changes in its procedures, modernizing a database that previously consisted of typewritten cards and implementing a call center that fields hundreds of inquiries a day from the public. Until recently, dozens of calls every day to the cemetery from the public simply rang unanswered.
The increased efficiency in dealing with the public has created its own problems, though: More people are requesting burial at the cemetery, and the wait time for a burial with full military honors increased dramatically, from 74 days in June 2010 to 87 days in June 2011.
"We're almost the victim of our own success," Condon told the panel, noting that calls have risen from 47 a day to 230 a day since the call center was implemented and staffed at Fort Detrick, Md.
"We do not know how many tried to call in, did not get through and decided to bury elsewhere" under the old regime, said Hallinan, who was hired by Condon.
The cemetery is trying to alleviate the backlog by offering Saturday burials for the first time for families that do not request burial with full honors, including a caisson.
Another change is that the Secretary of the Army has direct oversight of the cemetery. Previously, the cemetery operated as a somewhat autonomous unit under Superintendent John Metzler and deputy Thurman Higginbotham, who did not get along.
Despite the improvements, some committee members questioned whether the Army should be stripped of its management role over the cemetery and replaced by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., a ranking minority member on one of the two subcommittees that held the hearing, saying he was persuaded by veterans' groups, including the American Legion, that the cemetery would fare better in the long run under the Department of Veterans Affairs, which operates more than 130 cemeteries across the country.
"This is a scandal that never should have happened," Cooper said. "The Army is always going to be distracted by more important duties." McCoy acknowledged that the Army "took our eye off the ball" in running the cemetery but has since fixed its mistakes and said the Army is committed to the job and capable of fulfilling it.
Rep. Robert Wittman, R-Va., one of the subcommittee chairmen, asked whether the Army had fully explored partnerships with Veterans affairs and was utilizing its expertise. Condon replied that the cemetery did so in a significant way by hiring Hallinan, who previously worked at for the National Cemetery Administration, a part of veterans' affairs.