An Arlington National Cemetery representative said Wednesday the government "stubbed its toe" in allowing abuses to occur at the nation's most prominent military burial ground but said procedures are in place to help prevent errors, such as misplaced remains, from occurring in the future.
"Folks want to know, 'How could this happen at my Arlington National Cemetery?' " Keenon Artis, the site's new strategic communications officer, said in Charleston. "Rightfully, their anger is justified."
Artis' comments came in the first of several planned stops around the nation meant to assure veterans and other Americans that abuses uncovered at the cemetery are being addressed.
Controls are far "ahead of where we were just a year and a half ago," he said, "when we were finding urns in the wrong place."
Artis spoke during a lunchtime gathering of Charleston Area Military
College Alumni, an informal society of service academy and other senior military college graduates, at the Harbour Club downtown. Other stops planned on his public relations tour include Columbia and California.
Problems at Arlington have been well-documented in recent months. Some have been attributed to placement of remains, such as the discovery of mismarked, unmarked or weathered graves. But there also were millions of dollars that went toward contracts that produced nothing. Backhoe and dump truck operators were additionally found to be improperly trained.
Meanwhile, a criminal investigation was launched by the FBI and the Army's Criminal Investigation Division after a mass grave was uncovered containing eight sets of cremated remains.
After the collection of abuses mounted, the cemetery's top officials were removed and a new administration set out to document and account for every grave and monument. The resulting study found problems, some as minor as typographical errors in paper records, with nearly 65,000 sites, or about one-fourth the graves, The Washington Post reported.
Artis said part of the accountability and trust recovery effort has been to document and photograph every grave, making its location available electronically, including through global positioning. That includes graves of veterans who collected fame elsewhere, such as boxer Joe Louis and Hollywood actor Lee Marvin.
Also, decades of paper documents dating back to the early years of the cemetery that had been stored in poorly protected conditions, have been transferred to digital.
"We were one match away from destroying over 100 years of burial records and a significant portion of this country's history," he said.
Arlington started out as a Union Civil War cemetery in 1864. Military dead representing every war since then are buried at the site. Based on available land, the site is expected to remain viable for at least another decade or more.
Some of the veterans in the crowd said Artis reassured them that problems at the cemetery are being addressed properly.
"I'm encouraged to see it's in good hands," said group chairman Doug MacIntyre.