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Grave Mistakes at Arlington National Cemetery

Mishandling of remains, poor record keeping are revealed at burial ground


— Tetra Images/Getty Images

Veterans of conflicts ranging from the American Revolutionary War to Iraq and Afghanistan are buried at Arlington National Cemetery, which contains 200 of the nation’s most hallowed acres.

So a recent disclosure that the cemetery has hundreds of unmarked gravesites, abysmal record keeping and improperly handled cremated remains prompted anger and dismay among many veterans, their families and officials. Adding insult to injury, scores of headstones also were found mysteriously discarded in a stream that runs through the cemetery.

“The indications are that those headstones are decades old,” says Army spokesman Gary Tallman.

A few days before the headstones were discovered, a probe overseen by Secretary of the Army John McHugh noted that Arlington had been hamstrung by “dysfunctional management” and an “unhealthy organizational climate.” The burial ground’s superintendent, John Metzler Jr., will step down July 2, while deputy superintendent Thurman Higginbotham has been placed on administrative leave, pending a disciplinary review.

McHugh adds that new policies and procedures have also been put in place. But they’re a little late for William Grabe.

The urn holding the remains of Grabe’s sister, Air Force Master Sgt. Marian Grabe, a Vietnam veteran, had been buried in a plot that was already occupied.

“She was dedicated, she was real proud of her military service,” Grabe says of his sister, who joined the Air Force as an operating room nurse in 1963 and served for 26 years. She was 63 in 2007 when she died suddenly on Christmas Day, after a blood clot entered a lung. “In truth, my sister wouldn’t have liked all this attention,” Grabe relates.

An English professor at Northern Arizona University, Grabe was not happy to learn about the mishandling of his sister’s remains, but holds no ill will against Arlington. “You don’t need to walk around being angry,” he says. “You have to understand that mistakes get made.

“It turns out this was pretty systemic, and that’s why change has to happen,” Grabe says. His sister’s remains are now in the correct spot.

Most of Arlington’s problems were found in three sections of the cemetery, where burials of veterans began in the 1970s and 1980s. Only one of the sections is still active, according to Army spokesman Tallman.

“There is a positive side to this, and that is that even though we’ve unfortunately uncovered discrepancies, we have a plan that’s already in motion to fix these discrepancies,” Tallman says.

Blair S. Walker is a writer in Miami.

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