WASHINGTON — The Army is taking every measure possible to fix the problems at Arlington National Cemetery, and it should continue to manage the nation’s “most hallowed ground,” Army Secretary John M. McHugh told a congressional committee today.
The top two officials in charge of cemetery were disciplined earlier this month after an Army investigation found the cemetery’s management to be dysfunctional.
“For 146 years, the Army has proudly served in the administration of this hallowed ground,” McHugh told the House Armed Services Committee. “Clearly, we lost that commitment and that record of success. I want to pledge that the Army is doing everything necessary and possible to right these unimaginable, unacceptable wrongs.”
McHugh, a former congressman who served as the committee’s ranking member before being appointed Army secretary in September, outlined the measures he has taken since Army Inspector General Lt. Gen. R. Steven Whitcomb issued a June 8 report identifying 76 deficiencies at the cemetery and 101 recommendations for change.
McHugh said he has ordered structural and leadership changes, including rescinding “fractured, unmanageable oversight” in the cemetery’s superintendent and deputy superintendent and appointing Kathryn Condon, a senior Army civilian executive, to a new position of executive director of the Arlington National Cemeteries Program.
The secretary also said he has established an Arlington National Cemetery oversight group, and an advisory commission that is headed by former U.S. Sens. Robert Dole and Max Cleland, both war veterans. Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki has detailed two officials with the VA’s National Cemetery Administration to help with the overhaul, he said.
McHugh rejected a suggestion that Arlington be turned over to the National Cemetery Administration. “I’m not sure it’s the fair thing to do to burden other agencies with the stresses of the United States Army,” he said. “For over a century and a half, the Army has helped to polish its reputation [at Arlington], but clearly that record been tarnished. We will work as hard as possible to [fix] what we consider an Army problem.”
Nearly half of the roughly 330,000 people interred at Arlington are Army soldiers, McHugh noted. “We feel it’s important, especially during this time of war, that the Army stay responsible for interring our fallen heroes,” he said. “Until we’re ordered to step down, we’re going forward.”
McHugh also rescinded Army “General Order 13,” which was the management authority for the cemetery. That order, he said, inadvertently led to a lack of oversight at the cemetery. “There was real confusion among the agencies as to who had exact oversight authorities,” McHugh said. “By placing everyone in charge, no one was in charge. There were no clear lines of who was in charge. Whatever the reasons, it should never have happened.”
Now, he said, “the lines of authority are clear from the deputy director right to my desk.”
McHugh said he also has ordered audits of all contracts at Arlington, which the report found to be rife with irregularities. The findings will be turned over to Army criminal investigators, he said.
The IG report already was under way when he took office in September, McHugh said, and he ordered it expanded in November to investigate several other cemetery functions. He said he has tried to be transparent in publicizing and fixing the problems.
Whitcomb, who testified alongside McHugh, put blame with Arlington’s senior leaders and not its 95 employees. “While our findings raised very serious issues and require significant remedial actions,” he said, “I want to make clear that Arlington National Cemetery employees work under extraordinarily high operations tempo with a lack of leadership and still manage to serve our soldiers, honor their families, and honor all Americans with first-class services.”
The Army’s priority at Arlington now is in examining the 211 graves that the report identified as not matching up with site maps and burial cards, McHugh said. The Army hopes to accept some offers of Northern Virginia-based private information technology firms to cross-check the information of all of the cemetery’s graves, he said.
The Army has verified 27 of the 211 graves as being recording mistakes on site maps, meaning graves never existed in those locations, he said.
Upon release of the IG report, the Army established a call center from which people could seek information about the graves of loved ones. So far, McHugh said, 867 calls have been received, and the service has resolved 169 of the cases.
The Army also will assess military cemeteries outside the United States to find out if similar problems exist there, McHugh said. “We’re not just stopping at Arlington,” he said. “Where we find deficiencies, we will address them.”
The changes so far are just the start, McHugh said. “For us, this is the beginning of the process, and we are going to pursue it to its end.”
The Army secretary said he welcomes the committee’s continued oversight of the matter.
“These problems were committed under the watch of the Army, and it’s the Army’s responsibility going forward,” McHugh said. “For all importance Army places on this, Arlington National Cemetery was somewhat of a satellite spinning off in the distance. The more eyes on the process, the better.”
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)