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Senate backs McCaskill bill to fix problems at Arlington cemetery

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 4, 2010 - WASHINGTON - Responding to scathing reports about mismanagement of graves and questionable contracting practices at Arlington National Cemetery, the U.S. Senate on Saturday approved a bill sponsored by Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., that aims to help straighten out the cemetery's problems.

"This is the most sacred ground we have in the United States, and we've got to make sure we have the appropriate oversight," McCaskill said after the Senate approved the measure by unanimous consent.. Staffers said the senator was looking for a U.S. House sponsor for the bill, with the hope that the measure will get final approval before Congress adjourns later this month.

The bipartisan legislation was introduced by McCaskill and four colleagues -- Sens. Scott Brown, R-Mas., Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., Susan Collins, R-Me., and Richard Burr, R-N.C. -- after reports about mismarked Arlington graves sparked a hearing last summer by McCaskill's Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight that revealed the possibility of thousands of unmarked or improperly marked gravesites at the cemetery, which is just across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C.

Last week, the Washington Post reported that the Army had launched a criminal investigation into the misplacement of remains after discovering the cremated remains of eight people in a single gravesite marked "Unknown." A spokesman for the Army's Criminal Investigation Command said that -- unlike previous grave-marking problems at the cemetery that had likely been the result of human errors -- the burial of 8 urns in a single grave was "not likely a mistake."

Saying that she was "outraged at the problems that continue to surface at Arlington Cemetery," McCaskill assured senators that the legislation would help the cemetery's new management team identify and correct all errors in the burial records, improve their management of contracts and do a better job of contacting families of soldiers whose remains were mis-marked or misplaced.

"I'm confident that the Army and the Cemetery are both taking this very seriously, but this legislation will help hold the folks at Arlington accountable," she said.

Documents and other information presented to McCaskill's subcommittee in July suggested that thousands of graves may be unmarked, improperly marked, or mislabeled on the cemetery's maps. The Washington Post had found that at least one grave site at the cemetery was empty, another contained the wrong remains, and yet another contained two sets of remains.

Investigators said that many problems at Arlington stemmed from a failed effort to automate the way in which the cemetery manages its burial operations and tracks burial records. Even though the cemetery's management had spent between $5 million and $8 million on information technology contracts over seven years, Arlington's complex records remain in paper form and prone to human errors.

In June, after the U.S. Army Inspector General reported numerous problems at the cemetery, the Army set up a new chain of command there -- including an executive who reports directly to the Army Secretary. A senior official from the Department of Veterans Affairs, which manages more than 130 veteran's cemeteries nationwide, is also helping the Army reorganize the oversight and management systems.

The bill approved by the Senate would codify the new organizational structure and make it clear that Arlington Cemetery's management is accountable to Congress. Its provisions would:

- Direct the Army to report to Congress on the cemetery's ability to verify the identity, location and burial records for every gravesite, as well as to detail its plans to correct any errors that are discovered.

- Require an Army report on progress made in reforming the cemetery's management and oversight structure, including its contract management and practices for providing information to families of service members buried at Arlington.

- Instruct the Government Accountability Office to report to Congress on the management and oversight of Arlington, including oversight of contracts for the automation of burial operations; cemetery contract management; any corrective action taken; its compliance with directives from the Army and the Army National Cemeteries Advisory Commission; and cemetery practices for providing information to families of service members buried at Arlington.

The GAO also would be asked to investigate the feasibility of transferring control of Arlington Cemetery and the Soldiers' and Airmen's Home National Cemetery to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Rob Koenig is an award-winning journalist and author. He worked at the STL Beacon until 2013.