Army Fixing Shocking Problems Exposed at Arlington Cemetery…in 1997

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Yesterday’s big Arlington National Cemetery story was that the FBI is investigating possible criminal acts at Arlington.

The other thing going on is that frustrated members of Congress are seriously considering yanking authority to run Arlington National Cemetery away from the Army and giving the cemetery to the Department of Veterans Affairs. The reason? The VA runs 130 veterans’ cemeteries, apparently very well. The Army runs two cemeteries, including Arlington National Cemetery, and we all know how well the Army has done at Arlington.

Not well. And the Army knew the cemetery was out of control back in 1997, according to a report obtained by Battleland.

Army officials now argue vociferously that they are shocked, shocked by what happened at Arlington and they are really, really going to fix it. Last summer when the scandal exploded, Army Secretary John McHugh, for example, asked the House Armed Services Committee on June 30, 2010 not to take Arlington away from the Army. When pressed on whether the Army should lose Arlington, McHugh pledged that, “I’m going to work as hard, and the people that we brought into this initiative will work as hard as possible to restore what we consider an Army problem.”

The Army had admitted that Arlington had big problems on June 10, 2010. During a Pentagon press conference that day, the Army inspector general, Lt. Gen. Steven Whitcomb, made one little-noticed remark. He said some problems at Arlington “are a repeat of the deficiencies detailed in a 1997 inspection report by the military district of Washington’s IG.” Whitcomb added that those were “deficiencies which currently have gone largely unaddressed for the past 12 years.”

Wait a minute. What?

Yep. A copy of that 1997 inspector general report obtained by Battleland shows some shocking deficiencies at the cemetery. It doesn’t say anything about not knowing where all the bodies are buried, which turned out to be the real scandal.  But it basically says that the Army knew back in 1997 that the cemetery was out of control in myriad ways under the Superintendent there, Jack Metzler, and his deputy, Thurman Higginbotham. The Army finally forced them out last summer, 13 years later.

And here is the kicker — the 1997 report follows yet another report that found problems back in 1992.

“The atmosphere of turmoil, distrust, mismanagement and poor employee morale has continued to the present,” the 1997 report says. “There is no indication that the superintendent has changed and employees have lost confidence in his leadership ability.”

It says, for example, that the cemetery conducted some sort of environmental compliance assessment, but that it was “not accurate” and “misleading.” It said the environmental issues at Arlington “represent a significant potential embarrassment to this command.” Those embarrassments include the fact that the cemetery “is presently in violation of several U.S. Codes.”

In terms of worker safety, the report found that, “Unfortunately, the safety program is only perfunctory in nature and many employees work in unsafe or unhealthy conditions.”

The report said that “dissension and discord still exist between the superintendent and deputy.” It added that, “the split between the two will never be resolved as long as they both occupy their current positions.”

It also says that Metzler may have been involved in “inappropriate business activities with Services Corporation International, a major national funeral industry leader.” But the inspector general said the report does not get to the bottom of that issue which was “not within the approved scope of the assessment.”

With respect to Higginbotham, the report says he “used his authority to remove a handicap parking space for his own private use in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act Guidelines.”

And the report summed up that the cemetery’s “internal support operations and procedures require corrective actions.”

Maybe the Army will fix it this time. My recent article in TIME, however, raised serious questions about that.

Note: to explore an interactive site that displays a sample of Arlington’ confusing, sometimes contradictory burial records, click here.