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McCaskill: We Must Honor our Veterans by Fixing The Problems at Arlington Cemetery

Press Release

Location: Washington, DC

Following recent news reports of ongoing problems at Arlington National Cemetery, U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill took to the Senate floor to call for immediate answers from the Secretary of the Army regarding how the Army is continuing to address and complete their review to ensure that every person is in their correct burial spot. Media reports, including a TIME Magazine article, indicate that problems are more widespread than originally acknowledged, and that unmarked, improperly marked, or mislabeled graves continue to be discovered at the Cemetery.

Last summer, McCaskill held a hearing in her Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight to investigate reports of problems at Arlington National Cemetery and heard testimony on the Army Inspector General's report, as well as steps being taken to address major problems in the Cemetery's management. McCaskill's hearing revealed contracting failures had contributed to the problems and raised concerns about the potential that thousands more graves at Arlington may be unmarked, improperly marked or mislabeled.

"This is not something that we can sweep under the rug and say, you know, we've done the best we can. This is not that kind of problem," McCaskill said. "It's too important to all of us. I do not want this cloud hanging over Arlington National Cemetery. It has to be fixed because of the values that we have raised in this country."

In a letter sent to Secretary of the Army John McHugh today, McCaskill expressed serious concerns regarding the recent reports of the new, previously unacknowledged mistakes with the burial records and gravesites. Additionally, she questioned if the Army is capable of accounting for the extent of mismarked or previously unidentified remains at the cemetery. McCaskill asked that within a week the Army answer her questions, including the number of gravesites examined, number determined to be incorrectly identified, number of families contacted over problems and the procedures to which that contact is carried out, as well as the extent to which the Army will be able to correctly identify all gravesites by the end of the year.

Late last year, McCaskill won passage of legislation that requires the Secretary of the Army to provide an accounting of gravesites at Arlington by the end of the year and requires the Army Secretary to regularly report to Congress on progress in identifying and remedying errors at the Cemetery. It also requires the Government Accountability Office to report to Congress on the management and oversight of contracts at Arlington.

Following a June 2010 U.S. Army Inspector General (IG) report that found many of the problems at Arlington National Cemetery, the Secretary of the Army established a new organizational structure at the cemetery and created a new leadership position that reports directly to the secretary. A senior official from the Department of Veterans Affairs, which successfully manages over 130 veterans cemeteries nationwide, is also assisting the Cemetery.

Read a copy of the letter here.

McCaskill Floor Speech
Unofficial Transcript

Mr. President, I am honored to chair a subcommittee of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee that focuses on contracting oversight. I can stand here with certainty and tell my colleagues in America and Missourians that contracting problems in the federal government are substantial and they're expensive and they have to be fixed. And while we are all focused right now on trying to make the federal government spend less money and be more efficient, there are times that contracting problems have significant consequences beyond that of money being misspent or wasted. Sometimes contracting problems have human consequences, and examples would be some of our soldiers that were electrocuted because of substandard contracting work as it relates to showers in Iraq when they were standing up for us in a military conflict.

Last summer, a problem surfaced relating to Arlington National Cemetery, and this was a contracting problem. Last summer, my subcommittee held a hearing on the contracting incompetence at Arlington and what the consequences of that incompetence were. And heartbreaking as it is, we learned that because of mismanagement of contracts at Arlington, graves had been misidentified, remains had been buried someplace other than where families had been told they had been buried, and obviously this is a breathtaking revelation when you think about what Arlington National Cemetery means to the veterans of this country and to our nation. It is sacred ground. It is the kind of place that America needs to know that the remains of our heroes are being handled with the utmost deference, respect, dignity, and certainly Americans have the right to know that we are burying our heroes exactly where their families are told they are being buried.

In the committee hearing last summer, I estimated at that point in time, based on what we knew at that time, that as many as 6,600 graves had been misidentified. The Army responded quickly and forcefully, and I do want to recognize that Katherine Condon, the Executive Director of the Army National cemeteries program and Pat Hallinan, the superintendent of the Arlington National Cemetery, have been responsive and I think have been working hard to clean up this mess. However, we now have recent reports that indicate that maybe I underestimated the significance of this problem and maybe this problem is much larger than I even anticipated.

At the time when I used those numbers, people seemed to think that I was exaggerating. Well, we introduced a bill to make sure that there is accountability as it relates to Arlington, and along with a number of cosponsors, including Senator Brown, who was the ranking member of the committee at the time, along with Senator Collins and Senator Burr and Senator Lieberman, we introduced a bill that would aim at accountability at Arlington, require some reporting to us in nine months, require that the Secretary of Army continue to be held accountable on this huge, huge problem at Arlington National Cemetery. But I think now it's time that we get some interim information because information has now surfaced that potentially many, many, many graves have been mishandled.

We know there is a criminal investigation because we had eight urns discovered in one grave site last fall as we were working on this legislation. While I'm glad the legislation has become law, that doesn't change the urgency of this situation. So I have today written to the Secretary of the Army, Secretary McHugh, and I have asked for immediate information on an interim basis about what in fact has happened to clean up this mess at Arlington. Where they are in the process and what is the truth about graves that have been identified, have not been identified and potentially never will be identified. I have asked the following information of Secretary McHugh.

First, I want to know the number of grave sites that have been physically examined to identify the remains that are there. I want to know how many grave sites have been determined to be incorrectly identified, labeled or occupied and the methodology that's been used to make that determination. I want to know immediately how many families have been contacted regarding problems with the grave sites and the number of families that have requested that those grave sites be physically examined. I want to know what the procedure is for contacting the families regarding actual or potential problems with the grave sites and how these procedures have been implemented since our hearing last July. I want to know from the Army how will they be able to correctly identify all grave sites by the end of the year and the estimated costs and time required to complete an examination of that nature. I've asked the Secretary of the Army to respond to this letter in a week because I'm asking for what progress they've made.

This is not something that we can sweep under the rug and say, you know, we've done the best we can. This is not that kind of problem. I have veterans all over Missouri that walk up to me when I'm in the grocery store, that walk up to me when I'm at the mall, that walk up to me wherever I am and say, "don't give up on fixing Arlington. It's too important to all of us. And I do not want this cloud hanging over Arlington National Cemetery." I have been honored to attend funerals at Arlington National Cemetery. And I want to compliment the Army for the job they do in terms of the honor guard and the dignity that those services embrace.

But management has got a challenge here. And I want to make sure that this does not go off the radar screen in terms of a problem that has to be fixed. It has to be fixed because of the values that we have raised in this country. So I will look forward to the response from the Secretary of the Army. I will look forward to continuing to work with Katherine Condon. This is something that I think we've got to continually be transparent about in terms of reporting to the public the progress we're making so that every family member and every member when they go to Arlington Cemetery they don't ever have to wonder if they are showing respect to the hero at the grave site that is identified on the marker. Thank you, Mr. President, and I yield the floor. I suggest the absence of a quorum.

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