Arlington Cemetery shows much improvement, but problems remain

Evan Vucci/AP
Arlington National Cemetery has made significant progress on improving operations and resolving more than 200 cases of missing remains and misidentified grave sites, according to watchdog reports, but officials are still on the defensive over management challenges.
 

"Arlington is transitioning from crisis management to sustained excellence," Lt. Gen. Peter Vangjel, the Army inspector general, told the Senate Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight on Wednesday. The IG's 2011 report on Arlington Cemetery's performance cited new management for improving workplace morale and effectiveness.

The assessment is a stark contrast to a scathing IG report and Senate investigation in 2010 that examined the improper handling of remains by Arlington Cemetery contractors, and an FBI criminal investigation of possible contracting fraud a year later.

Problems still remain, however. Despite the implementation of the Army's General Fund Enterprise Business System to improve financial reporting at the cemetery, the Army Audit Agency reported $12 million in funds allocated between 2004 and 2010 were unaccounted for.

Kathryn Condon, executive director at Arlington Cemetery, told the committee Wednesday that all funds were accounted for, but cemetery officials came forward Thursday to say that the missing $12 million has been recovered through reconciling contracts with federal agencies.

Subcommittee Chairwoman Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said in a statement to the The Washington Post on Thursday that she would "continue to track progress and monitor outside audits, until every grave site is checked and every dollar accounted for."

In addition to accounting for finances, Arlington must still finish resolving the information for roughly 50,000 grave sites to ensure they have the sufficient documentation. "I want to state upfront that we still have work to do," Condon told lawmakers. "I accept those challenges."

A Gravesite Accountability Task Force was set up by the Army to review and verify every grave site. The task force uses a six-step procedure to correct information when a discrepancy is found. Condon said all remaining cases would be completed by summer.

A Government Accountability Office report released Wednesday noted the cemetery needs to make contract management improvements that include maintaining a complete database on contracts and determining appropriate contractor staffing needs.

Condon assured the committee that streamlining contracts was a priority, and as much work as possible would be completed in-house.

"We are really truly building the workforce that's required to run Arlington properly," she said. "We feel that the numbers we have now are adequate, as we get time to assess the [technology]. One of our goals is to make sure we have the right number of people to do the job."

Arlington Cemetery has focused on technology initiatives to improve management and transparency, including the creation of a single database containing information for every grave site, created with the help of soldiers from the Old Guard. "Aside from their other duties, many showed up at midnight with cellphones, and individuals went and photographed over 250,000 grave sites" to include in the database, Condon said.

Families and the general public will be able to search the database and pull up a photo of a grave marker and accompanying information. In the next few months officials also will unveil a smartphone app with GPS and digital information kiosks, currently in alpha testing, to help visitors to find grave sites more easily.

The next steps for the cemetery should include focusing on long-term expansion to accommodate more burials and sustaining the management changes that already have been made, according to Brian Lepore, GAO's director of defense capabilities and management.

"They're putting in place the kind of policies and procedures that if fully implemented, they will outlive the current team," Lepore said. "The next generation of leaders shouldn't have to reinvent the systems."

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