Arlington's Grave Mix-Ups: Will the Army Ever Fix the Problem?

New evidence reveals serious burial mix-ups at Arlington National Cemetery. Does the Army want to fix the problem?

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Peter van Agtmael / Magnum for TIME

Kathryn Condon, who took over as director of the Army National Cemeteries Program after a scandal revealed that Arlington National Cemetery had many unmarked and mismarked graves

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And then there is Arlington's Civil War–era style of record keeping. Years after other massive cemeteries computerized all their burial records, Arlington still tries to track about 30 burials a day with bits of paper recording the names and locations of remains. (This antiquated system has persisted years longer than it should have because the previous Arlington leaders paid millions aimed at computerizing Arlington to a group of friendly contractors who did almost nothing in return.)

Graves at Arlington are generally numbered sequentially and grouped into sections that often consist of several thousand burial sites each. TIME has reviewed records and inspected headstones for more than a dozen of these sections, from brand-new burials to graves that date from the late 1800s. It is clear that burial errors are spread throughout the hundreds of thousands of graves at Arlington. In section 64, for example, the headstone for Army Specialist Chin Sun Pak Wells, who died at the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, sits above grave No. 4642. But according to internal cemetery documents obtained by TIME, her grave card — one of two pieces of paper that show where her headstone should be — says she is in grave 4672. Similarly, the records for section 64 put the remains of Navy Commander Russell K. Wood Jr., Army Sergeant First Class Ernest F. Freeman and Air Force Lieut. Colonel Arthur Rolph in two separate graves each.

Mistaken identity at the cemetery takes still other forms. Arlington's paperwork, for example, says that in 2005, in that same section, Army Sergeant First Class Irving Havenner Jr. and Air Force Colonel George Drury were both buried in the same grave, No. 2605.

Kathryn Condon, the new Arlington boss and a career Army executive, won't acknowledge the scope of the problem but doesn't really deny it either: "I can't tell you if the problem is massive yet until we see where we have our discrepancies." Since taking over nearly a year ago, she says, she has implemented strict, six-step chain-of-custody standards for keeping track of remains buried today. Thanks to those steps, she says, the headstones erected since her arrival stand over the right graves.

As for past errors, Condon described an ambitious, years-long project to probe for potential mistakes. Hundreds of thousands of burial records will be digitized and compared with overhead images of the headstones in each section. Workers will then load into that database photographs of the front and back of each numbered headstone. Potential problems should pop up once all that data is compared. "That will tell us where we might have potential discrepancies," Condon explains, "or not."

But Condon also revealed a critical incongruity in her plans to "fix Arlington." She admits that the burial paperwork is an unreliable mess, yet at the same time she insists there is enough correct information in the documents to figure out the likely location of remains with some degree of accuracy — and without digging to make sure. Condon calls this the "presumption of regularity" in the paperwork. What she means is that when documents show one person buried in two places, for example, the cemetery could use ground-penetrating radar to figure out whether a particular grave contains remains or not. "When the headstone matches the records and we probe [with radar] and it all matches, you have to have a presumption of regularity that that is a correct grave site," she says.

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