Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington County, Virginia, is a military cemetery in the United States of America, established during the American Civil War on the grounds of Arlington House, formerly the estate of the family of Confederate general Robert E. Lee’s wife Mary Anna (Custis) Lee, a great grand-daughter of Martha Washington. The cemetery is situated directly across the Potomac River from the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., and near The Pentagon. It is served by the Arlington Cemetery station on the Blue Line of the Washington Metro system.
In an area of 624 acres (2.53 km2), veterans and military casualties from each of the nation’s wars are interred in the cemetery, ranging from the American Civil War through to the military actions in Afghanistan and Iraq. Pre-Civil War dead were reinterred after 1900.
Arlington National Cemetery and United States Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Home National Cemetery are administered by the Department of the Army. The other national cemeteries are administered by the Department of Veterans Affairs or by the National Park Service. Arlington House (Custis-Lee Mansion) and its grounds are administered by the National Park Service as a memorial to Lee.
The United States Department of Veterans Affairs oversees the National Cemetery Administration’s orders for placement of inscriptions and faith emblems at no charge to the estate of the deceased, submitted with information provided by the next of kin that is placed on upright marble headstones or niche covers.
There are 39 authorized faith emblems available for placement to represent the deceased’s faith. See also, the United States Department of Veterans Affairs webpage “Available Emblems of Belief for Placement on Government Headstones” and “Markers” Markers
Prior to 2007, the United States Department of Veterans Affairs did not allow the use of the pentacle as an “emblem of belief” on tombstones in military cemeteries. This policy was changed following an out-of-court settlement on 23 April following a series of lawsuits against the VA.
Until 2005, the cemetery’s administration gave free access, with the family’s permission, to the media to cover funerals at the cemetery. According to the Washington Post, over the past several years the cemetery has gradually imposed increasing restrictions on media coverage of funerals.
After protesting the new restrictions on media representatives, Gina Gray, the cemetery’s new public affairs director, was demoted and then fired on June 27, 2008, after only three months in the job. Days after Gray began working for the cemetery and soon after she had spoken to the media about the new restrictions, her supervisor, Phyllis White, began requiring Gray to notify White whenever she “left the building.”
On June 9, White changed Gray’s title from Public Affairs Director to “Public Affairs Officer.” A few days later, when Gray took sick leave, White disconnected Gray’s email BlackBerry. In the termination memo, White stated that Gray had, “been disrespectful to me as your supervisor and failed to act in an inappropriate (sic) manner.” Thurman Higginbotham, deputy director of the cemetery stated that Gray’s release from employment, “had nothing — absolutely nothing to do with — with media issues.”
Secretary of the Army Pete Geren, has asked his staff to look into Gray’s dismissal. Said Gray in response, “I am definitely encouraged by any investigation into the mismanagement at Arlington Cemetery.” In July 2009 Gray filed suit against the US Army under the Freedom of Information Act, stating that the US Army had refused to publicly release its findings from the probe into Gray’s dismissal.
In the suit, Gray claims that the probe found that Higginbotham had lied to federal investigators and that someone had illegally accessed Gray’s government email account and sent an email in her name. The investigation reportedly had found that when the email was accessed from a cemetery office computer, only two employees, Higginbotham and a contractor, were present in the building. At least two members of Congress, Jim Webb and Howard McKeon, are watching the lawsuit.
The U.S. Army stated that it had not received any complaints about the newer, more restrictive policies concerning media coverage of funerals. But CNN reported that some families have complained about not being able to decide for themselves on the level of media access allowed.
On June 9, 2010, United States Secretary of the Army John M. McHugh reprimanded Arlington National Cemetery’s superintendent, John Metzler, and his deputy, Thurman Higgenbotham, after a United States Department of Defense inspector general’s report revealed that cemetery officials had placed the wrong headstones on tombs, buried coffins in shallow graves, and buried bodies on top of one another.
Metzler, who had already announced his intention to retire on July 2, 2010, admitted some mistakes had been made but denied allegations of widespread or serious mismanagement. The investigation also found that cemetery employees were burdened in their day-to-day work by “dysfunctional management, lack of established policy and procedures, and an overall unhealthy organizational climate.” Both Metzler and Higgenbotham retired soon after the investigation commenced.
Washington Post Staff Writer
The remains of Marine Corps Pvt. Heath Warner, who was 19 when he was killed in Iraq four years ago, were positively identified Wednesday after his coffin was exhumed from the grounds of Arlington National Cemetery.
After finding inaccurate information in burial records, Scott Warner of Canton, Ohio, had grown concerned that his son might be interred in the wrong place and asked that his body be exhumed.
The exhumation, held under a brilliant blue sky shortly after 8 a.m., came after the cemetery discovered last month that two sets of remains had been buried in the wrong place. On Wednesday morning, Army spokesman Gary Tallman said three sets of remains had been involved in that mix-up but revised his statement later, saying he had been provided incomplete information by Army officials.
Warner said he lost faith in the cemetery’s leadership after the Army’s inspector general released a report in June that found widespread record-keeping problems at the nation’s most important military burial site, including 211 mislabeled or unmarked grave sites and at least four burial urns that had been dug up and dumped in a pile of excess dirt…
Shortly after the cemetery opened Wednesday, Warner and his wife, Melissa, were flanked by a small group of friends and relatives and a priest as they made their way to their son’s grave site. Two reporters were also invited by the family to attend.
A backhoe had already opened their son’s grave. Tallman said that process included pumping water out of the plot, which, like many grave sites at Arlington, rests below the water table.
Heath Warner’s headstone lay on the ground at the head of the freshly dug rectangular hole. Nearby, headstones were covered with green plastic garbage bins for protection.
When the family was in place by the grave site, the backhoe lifted off a large concrete slab covering the coffin. Then a cemetery worker lowered himself into the hole and emerged with an identification tag that had been affixed to the coffin. He handed it to an Army colonel, who rubbed off the dirt and handed it to the Warners.
They nodded their heads, indicating that it identified their son.
Then the workers placed harnesses on either end of the coffin that attached to the arm of the backhoe, which began to pull the casket out of the ground. It came up slowly, covered in dirt, and emerged over the lip of the hole at a tilt.
After it was pulled from the ground, the coffin was placed on a flatbed truck, covered in an American flag and taken to a cinder-block building in a maintenance area of the cemetery.
Scott Warner and a young Marine who was a friend of Heath Warner’s entered the building to make the identification. When they emerged a half-hour later, Scott Warner said, “It’s him,” to his wife, who embraced him.
“I can breathe,” Melissa Warner said. “I feel like a ton of bricks have been lifted off my chest.”…]
(Now for the true story via Burn Pit by Pvt. Warner’s Uncle)
On September 15, 2010 at around 0800 in the morning, a family makes their way into Arlington National Cemetery for the Disinterment of a Marine Private killed by an IED in Al Anbar Province Iraq on 22 November 2006 killing him and two others.
As they stood at the grave site, a forklift arrives to raise a coffin from the vault that had interred it for nearly four years. Arlington knew at this point that the vault and coffin had been opened. When the family became aware of this action, an unsettling air of distrust settled upon the gathering.
The father yells “you lied” as family members hold and calm him. The father already marred and angry by the uncooperative atmosphere and insensitivity of Arlington’s leadership; his grief now changes to anger. Another promise broken! Arlington, to seemingly cover their asses had breached the coffin the night before to ensure the Marine Private and the dog tags were in the assigned plot.
With a rotting corpse and the putrid stench of death permeating the air, a worker removes a dog tag from the coffin lid, wipes off the dirt, and hands it to the father. The forklift begins to raise the coffin; putrid water begins streaming out and those in attendance gasp as the fear of body parts falling from the unstable casket grips them.
Once removed, the coffin is lowered onto the bed of a truck and driven to a maintenance building where the verification process is to be held. In attendance inside were the father, a fellow Marine and friend of the Private who was to verify the remains, a Colonel, a Catholic Priest (arriving later), a Funeral Director, and some cemetery workers.
The father was already grieving and reeling from yet another confrontation with Arlington personnel the day before. He demanded and Arlington agreed the vault inside the grave would not be opened until he arrived the morning of the 15th. The father apprehensive about the day’s events was anxious if they would find his son inside. He fumed from yet another breach of trust.
The father rejects the dog tags offered to him as verification by Arlington. The dog tags may have been sufficient had the integrity of the coffin not been breached. However, since it had been prior to the family’s arrival; the father then requested visual verification. The staff at Arlington appeared unprepared for what was to come next, thus tipping the father’s hand.
His adrenalin already maxed and because of Arlington’s ineptness, the father instinctively jumps onto the truck in his dress clothes despite the rancid odor. The father begins digging through the water soaked; stench filled rotting dismembered remains of his son, in search of the severed arm with a tattoo on it. Meanwhile the Funeral Director is standing to the side, gagging. The father looks at the Funeral Director and tells him, “Get over here and do your job!”
Arlington’s assistance during this time consisted of providing him with latex gloves. The father removes his rancid dress gloves used in digging through the soupy carnage and discards them in the trash. He also removes his jacket, hat and sunglasses, and continues to search for the missing arm.
This arm with the tattoo would positively confirm that the unrecognizable severely decomposed corpse was his son’s. The father still searching as he inhales the pungent stench of rotting flesh discovers for the first time since his son’s death, that only a torso, arm, and leg were there.
Finally, after frantically searching the carnage, the arm is found under the torso with the tattoo mostly intact. The father in a gesture of love carefully and gently wipes away the dirt. He verifies his son. The veil of doubt is lifted. His son now placed in a new casket, the family looks on as the Private is reinterred, and now all are at peace.
AOCS, USN Ret.