Like most Virginians, I was appalled when we recently learned of widespread problems at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia: misplaced and misidentified remains, a chaotic management environment and a total lack of accountability at our nation’s most pre-eminent military burial site.
The report by the Army’s Inspector General on June 10th documented many of these problems, and I appreciate Army Secretary John McHugh’s willingness to publicly disclose, and his pledge to correct, the mess at Arlington.
What we’ve seen and read in recent weeks seriously disrespects the memories and the service of the 330,000 military men and women buried at the nearly 150-year-old cemetery in Northern Virginia.
These challenges have been on mind almost every day as I drive by Arlington National Cemetery on my way to work on Capitol Hill. In fact, my father — an 85-year-old U.S. Marine veteran of Iwo Jima — often has mentioned to me that he would be honored to be interred at Arlington alongside our nation’s other military heroes when his time comes.
This week, I asked the Army Inspector General to visit my office to provide a more detailed briefing on the management lapses and challenges at Arlington. Afterwards, I had a good conversation with Army Secretary McHugh to further explore ways that we might be helpful in fixing what’s obviously broken at Arlington.
As a guy who comes from the IT world, and as a public official who focuses on government accountability and management competence, I was especially troubled to learn that the Army has spent at least $5.5 million in recent years on three separate contracts to digitize and automate the burial registration records at Arlington. I was extremely surprised to learn this week that cemetery officials never made a serious effort to incorporate computerized records or adopt other modern IT processes in their day-to-day functions at Arlington.
In fact, they continued to rely on paper records. According to the Inspector General, most of Arlington’s burial information is handwritten on tens of thousand of 3×5 index cards.
I told Secretary McHugh that this situation is simply unacceptable: it means we are just one fire, flood or coffee spill away from losing the only records of who is buried at Arlington, and where. That is extremely disrespectful to the memories of the brave men and women who have answered the call to duty and proudly served our nation.
The Army has announced an aggressive effort to further identify and correct the challenges at Arlington. The cemetery’s top two managers have been relieved of their duties, and military officials have launched a longer-term effort to fix these problems.
But as I told the Secretary of the Army this week, there are certain steps we can and must take today to preserve and protect these fragile records.
I have reached out to our friends in Northern Virginia’s vibrant IT community to see if they might be willing to help. I was not surprised to find that leaders of the Northern Virginia Technology Council are eager to provide, at no cost, whatever short-term technical assistance is needed to begin digitizing the paper records at Arlington.
This certainly would go a long way toward restoring the credibility of the mission at Arlington National Cemetery, and I am committed to work with the Army and the NVTC to provide whatever assistance we might be able to provide to help fix this mess.
Since 1864, Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia has occupied a special place in the hearts and minds of Americans. To me, and most likely to you, it represents hallowed ground.
We owe our military men and women, our veterans and their families, a respectful and competent effort that fully honors their service and sacrifice to our nation.
Army officials have established a call center for families to try to address concerns about burial discrepancies at Arlington. The phone number is (703) 607-8199, and it operates from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m., EDT, Monday through Friday.
I’ll keep you posted on our efforts, and, as always, I urge you to contact our office if we can be of assistance to you on this or any other issue.