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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The problem with this is that radar will tell the Army only if there is a casket in the ground, not who is in it. Condon admits that such judgments about who is buried where may turn out to be wrong. "The only way you are ever truly going to find out is to physically excavate," she acknowledges. Where cemetery records suggest that there are remains in two places, the Army could decide that the grave with the headstone that matches the name on the paperwork is probably the correct one. "We can validate through the records process," Condon explains.

Condon's strategy is to rely on the records and noninvasive tools to figure out the most likely identity and location of remains. She says she has already used this method to identify the remains in three mystery graves during her 10-month tenure. She cannot dig to confirm those judgments, she says, unless next of kin absolutely insist.

Leaving Some Behind
Condon knows from experience that digging sometimes leads only to new confusion. Last August, a skeptical widow steadfastly insisted that Arlington disinter the remains of her husband, an Army staff sergeant, from a grave in section 66 — even though the Army's records showed that her husband's remains were safely in that grave. His headstone also sat atop that site.

Arlington workers dug and found the remains not of the Army sergeant but of Jean Koch, wife of retired Air Force Colonel Bill Koch. And when Arlington workers dug under Jean Koch's headstone, which stood one grave to the left of the Army staff sergeant's headstone, they found no remains at all. So from Koch's headstone, they moved two graves over to the right. The headstone sitting there was marked as being for the wife of an unrelated Navy commander. They dug and found that Navy commander's wife's remains — along with the remains of the Army staff sergeant that officials were looking for in the first place.

It was a horrifying, domino-like series of burial mistakes, and it supports what people familiar with the cemetery's operations have long said: each burial error at Arlington might represent several related burial mistakes. Paul Bucha, who earned a Medal of Honor in Vietnam and who spends considerable time on veterans' issues, railed at the notion that Arlington would not determine beyond any shadow of doubt the correct identity and location of remains at the cemetery. "The question is, Which family will you look in the eye and swear that you know their loved one is buried there?" he asks.

Settling for an educated guess on the identity of remains, veterans say, flies in the face of the military's sacred leave-no-one-behind battlefield ethos. From the lowly Army private to the top Pentagon brass, the military has long stopped at nothing to bring a service member's remains home for honorable burial. Some 350 Pentagon employees work tirelessly in a program to track down combat remains wherever they may lie around the world. To help identify those remains, the Pentagon runs the largest high-tech forensic laboratory in the world, in Hawaii. "If you don't know who is in the ground," Bucha says, "how do you say no one is left behind?"

Bill Koch had previously visited the headstone of his wife Jean in section 66 only to learn last summer that her grave was empty. Contacted by TIME in Raleigh, N.C., Koch noted the irony of the military's pulling out the stops to identify a finger bone from the jungles of Vietnam but being reluctant to use a backhoe at Arlington. "They are never," he said, "going to fix the problem."

Award-winning journalist Mark Benjamin first broke the Arlington scandal in 2009 writing for Salon.com.

For a response to this story from the U.S. Army, click here

For Mark Benjamin's response to the Army, click here

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