Arlington Cemetery officials tell lawmakers wrongs will be righted
April 18, 2011
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ARLINGTON, Va. (Army News Service, April 18, 2011) -- Arlington National Cemetery officials told congressmen that past faulty management practices are being fixed, including employee training and automation of record-keeping systems.
In a hearing before the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations April 14, 2011, Kathryn A. Condon, executive director of the Army National Cemeteries Program and Patrick Hallinan, superintendent of Arlington National Cemetery, described how they are handling administrative problems they faced.
"When we began in June, we were almost moved into a house that didn't have a foundation. There wasn't an IT infrastructure. There wasn't the accountability, and there weren't any standards and procedures. So, we had to build that first," Condon said.
"You have our commitments (to) this subcommittee, the families and the American public, that we will correct the problems of the past and ensure, from an operational and maintenance standpoint, that Arlington is run to the highest standards," Hallinan told the subcommittee members.
BACKGROUND OF ARLINGTON NATIONAL CEMETERY TURMOIL
Secretary of the Army John McHugh issued a formal reprimand last year to then-Superintendent John C. Metzler Jr. and also placed Deputy Superintendent Thurman Higginbotham on administrative leave pending disciplinary review after Army Inspector General R. Steven Whitcomb found gross mismanagement at Arlington National Cemetery.
This included at least 211 graves either unmarked or misidentified, and cremated remains improperly handled. A separate IG inspection found other administrative failures, such as outdated documents concerning operations at the cemetery
COMMUNICATION IS KEY
Communication was seen as key in restoring faith and building trust with families, Condon said.
"One of the things Mister Hallinan and I have done was [conduct] a town hall with Gold Star families. This was our opportunity to have those family members who have lost a loved one talk to us about what they would expect the new leadership team at Arlington to discuss with them," Condon said.
The town hall was orchestrated by TAPS, the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors.
"Our website is one of the means of communication that we are using for any issue that we have at the cemetery and we're constantly trying to improve that medium, as well," Condon said.
Condon and her team also set up a call center hotline immediately after the Inspector General announced his findings last year.
"This was so members who heard the news could call in," Condon said. "Now we have a consolidated call center, which is a toll-free number where anyone can call the cemetery. This didn't exist before."
The cemetery now receives more than 200 phone calls a day with about 45 of those calls from families trying to schedule services to have their loved ones buried.
Information technology architecture at the cemetery had to be built from the ground up, as well.
EMPLOYEES NEED TRAINING
Another issue facing the new leadership at Arlington was employee training.
"We recently sent one of the supervisors to the VA Training Center. This was the first time he had been sent for training in 20-some years of employment at the cemetery. There weren't standards or procedures, and they weren't held accountable," Condon said.
"We will not turn a blind eye," Hallinan said. "The employees were not provided leadership. But I can assure you with 100 percent confidence, under our watch, if they do not respect and honor the service of our veterans, if there is misconduct, or if it is a performance issue, it will be addressed."
Another issue brought up by a manpower survey is the number of employees needed to do the job.
"We've had 15 individuals who have retired or who have transferred to other positions. But as part of the manpower survey, we were told that we need 57 more people to run the cemetery effectively and efficiently. We managed to hire 22 more individuals and we have 24 active recruitments on the street to bring in the new team to run Arlington," Condon said.
UPDATING OF RECORDS
Another issue being addressed is the modernization of record keeping.
"Most of the records are in a card catalog system that is ancient. Part of the accountability that we are doing, by public law, is scanning all of our records and then tying that to a digital flyover of each and every grave site so that we truly will have a digital process for our record keeping," she said.
SHOULD ARMY CONTINUE TO MAINTAIN ARLINGTON NATIONAL CEMETERY'
Lastly, the subcommittee members debated whether the Army should continue to maintain Arlington National Cemetery. Around the country, 131 national cemeteries are highly maintained by Veterans Affairs with a dedicated workforce and, according to Hallinan, a former VA employee who was responsible for those cemeteries, Arlington is currently being operated and maintained to those same consistent standards.
"ANC is unique. It is one of the busiest national cemeteries in the United States, if not the entire world. Additionally, over 3,000 ceremonies are conducted for dignitaries and heads of state to come and pay their respect to America's fallen servicemen and women. Arlington also provides graveside service, which VA cemeteries do not do," Hallinan said.
"The Army needs to fix the issues that have occurred at Arlington," said Condon.
"The evaluation of the entire cemetery to discover the full content and magnitude of discrepancies that exist, by public law, has to be completed by Dec. 22, 2011. We are well on our way of putting forward the plan and starting the effort to accomplish the evaluation.
"We are also in the process of nominating the Arlington Commission which (Secretary of the Army John) McHugh has directed we put together. We will use this commission to give us that 'outside look' of the issues at Arlington," Condon said.
This independent commission will look at things such as existing operations, discrepancies in the past and what should be done to fix those discrepancies, and then they'll look at the problem operationally with conduct of personnel.
"I think we should put together those standards and procedures and fix the issues and then make the determination on where Arlington should go in the future," Condon said, adding that once the cemetery is fixed, it should be a DoD-run cemetery.
Following the investigation and fixes, said Chairman Robert Wittman, (R-Va.), families should no longer question the location or identification of their loved ones.
"I think we have more than one unknown Soldier at Arlington now. I think that we want to make sure that we go back to only having one Tomb of the Unknown there at Arlington," retired Air Force Col. William Koch said in his opening testimony about the location of his wife's remains.