The Arlington National Cemetery is renowned for its tranquility and peace, as it is the final resting place for many of our nation's most distinguished artists, writers, and warriors. Many former presidents, including John F. Kennedy, reside there, as do civil rights leaders and Supreme Court justices such as Thurgood Marshall.
However, despite its facade of serenity, the Arlington National Cemetery has recently been the center of a storm of controversy, as revealed by a Salon investigation earlier this month.
In April 2008, a conflict emerged regarding media coverage of funerals. Thurman Higginbotham, the Deputy Superintendent, pushed to keep the media as far away from the ceremony as possible, even though the families involved had allowed media coverage, as pointed out by The Washington Post. Although there was no set law or doctrine which dictated how the media should be handled, others declared that the families should have the right to choose.
The Post continued to follow the story as the conflict escalated. After details of corruption and harassment against Arlington employees emerged, the Army's Criminal Investigation Command also began to look into the cemetery.
The subsequent investigation revealed innumerable faults that the cemetery has swept under the rug over the past decade. For instance, the cemetery has failed to modernize its record-keeping system, opting instead to continue to use paper records. Although many similar cemeteries operate on an electronic system, which allows satellite mapping, Arlington's efforts to modernize have largely remained fruitless. Cards, flowers, and notes left on the graves of Iraq veterans are thrown away, ruined, or left to rot.
What's more, the cemetery testified to Congress in 2008 that “there are numerous examples of discrepancies that exist between burial maps, the physical location of headstones, and the burial records / grave cards.” Many whistleblowers have revealed that records or headstones and remains often do not match. “They told me that they've got people buried there that they don't know who they are,” stated one whistleblower, continuing, “Then they've got the wrong headstones over the graves…but nothing was ever followed up on.”
The graves weren't the only problems ignored at Arlington. Although the investigation revealed that Higginbotham had lied to Army investigators during criminal probes, he has never faced any legal consequences, nor is it expected that he ever will. The Army was and is aware of a “pattern of workplace…hostility,” and knew that the cemetery was facing vast structural and organizational problems. This awareness long preceded the investigations regarding Higginbotham. Where was the Army before? Why were no investigations conducted, nor any oversight available?
The scandal at Arlington serves as yet another reminder of the dangers of improper oversight and a lack of transparency. The senior officials at Arlington need to correct these problems, and the Army needs to understand the issues the cemetery faces. Some of our nation's greatest leaders are buried at Arlington--from scientists to soldiers killed overseas. It's time they got the peaceful final resting place they deserve.
-- Ana O'Harrow