Globe Editorial

6,600 questions of honor in Arlington National Cemetery

August 28, 2010

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IF ANY place should be immune from bureaucratic bumbling, it is Arlington National Cemetery. The cemetery’s mission is simple: provide a final resting place for deceased members of the armed services. Yet a Senate investigation prompted by a Salon Magazine series and spearheaded by Senators Scott Brown of Massachusetts and Claire McCaskill of Missouri has revealed the unthinkable: As many as 6,600 graves at Arlington appear to be unmarked or mislabeled, according to Army officials and whistle-blowers, and a review of Army documents.

Much of the investigation, which culminated in a Senate Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight hearing late last month, has focused on former Deputy Superintendent Thurman Higginbotham, who had a more hands-on role in running the cemetery than his boss, former Superintendent John Metzler. For more than six years Higginbotham headed the initiative to computerize the cemetery’s records, which to this day are on paper because the cemetery’s staff was never able to get the new system working.

Salon reported that Higginbotham steered a steady stream of dollars to a succession of contractors, all of whom failed to get the job done, at an eventual cost of around $8 million. Higginbotham was also found to have made false statements to Army investigators looking into claims that he improperly tapped into the computer of an employee whistleblower.

The scandal at Arlington National Cemetery constitutes a national embarrassment, and Brown and McCaskill should be praised for taking up this issue. The first step in addressing it should be to assess the full scope of the problem. As of now, only three of the sprawling cemetery’s 70 sections have been checked. It’s likely that the number of mislabeled graves will only rise as a full investigation takes root, so it’s imperative that the Army crosscheck grave sites against the records of all 330,000 people who are buried at the cemetery.

The Army also needs to do what Metzler and Higginbotham failed to do: modernize its cemetery’s record-keeping. There’s also the question of accountability. Metzler was reprimanded but allowed to retire with his full benefits package.

Higginbotham, who pleaded the Fifth Amendment during the hearing, was also reprimanded and put on administrative leave. He subsequently retired, and will also receive full benefits. Given the damage these two men did to one of the nation’s most hallowed sites, it’s inconceivable that they should pay no price for their negligence.

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