On a recent, unusually warm late-winter day, a young woman sat quietly at the foot of a white headstone at Arlington National Cemetery, among a cluster of graves of troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. The woman, maybe 25 years old, sat in the grass, hugging the headstone.
The question is not why she was doing that (that's easy to understand); the question is whether the headstone she was hugging was the right one. Last summer, an Army inspector general's investigation confirmed that the Army had effectively lost control of its sacred ground, the national resting place of John F. Kennedy, Audie Murphy and 330,000 others who faithfully served their country. The Army probe played down reports of misplaced or lost remains, but the revelations prompted congressional hearings and howls of disgust from veterans' organizations. In an unusual departure from the Army's normal reflexes, Army Secretary John McHugh pushed out the superintendent of Arlington and his deputy and installed a new boss to make things right on its hallowed site.
But it appears likely that the problems at Arlington are far worse than the Army has acknowledged, and the new chief, Kathryn Condon, admits the service may never be able to identify all the missing remains on the immaculate 624-acre (250 hectare) site. The Army now plans to make only educated guesses about the identity of remains rather than digging in the dirt to be sure. That means that the true location of some remains may be a mystery forever.
The Army has known for months that it may have a massive case of mistaken identity on its hands but has been reluctant either to admit it or to learn exactly how widespread the burial errors are. Through the Freedom of Information Act, TIME obtained the raw transcripts of interviews that cemetery workers gave in 2009 and 2010 to the inspector general. In contrast to the tepid report the IG released last June, the transcripts show how workers repeatedly found unidentified remains while digging in what were supposed to be empty graves. "We went into a grave site, which we assumed was empty," one worker recalls. "Dig down ...and, uh ... whoops! Another coffin." Another worker guessed that "one time out of 10," a headstone at Arlington sits above the wrong grave.
The idea of workers' unexpectedly coming across remains where none were supposed to be is troubling, but at least those remains can be identified. Many caskets buried at Arlington carry exterior identification tags. And for those that do not, rapid advances in DNA identification technology provide hope that almost any mystery can be solved.
The transcripts, however, show that an unknown number of cremated remains were placed in urns that are lost forever. The problem stems from Arlington's policy of burying spouses on top of each other. When a veteran or his loved one died and the remains were cremated, the urns were interred just 3 ft. (1 m) below ground. When Arlington workers returned later to prepare the grave site for a coffin burial of a spouse, they generally removed 7 ft. (2 m) of fill. Workers complained in the transcripts that they were sometimes not alerted that an urn was already in a grave before they dug there a second time. Urns were sometimes scooped up by backhoes and dumped into a landfill, where workers would occasionally come across them later by chance. "That happens a lot," one worker said. "Nobody knows until somebody happens to see it in the landfill and says, 'Oh, my God, man. We just screwed up.'"