Friday, July 02, 2010

Mr. Vain






"I'm angry. Period," declared US House Rep Ike Skelton yesterday. "Anger is usually not a useful emotion -- particularly here on Capitol Hill; however, in light of the recent revelations about the management of Arlington National Cemetery, I am just downright angry. Arlington Cemetery is our nation's most hallowed ground. It is reserved as the final resting place of our heroic warriors. Management ineptitude and neglect have resulted in a web of errors. How in the world could this tragedy be allowed to happen?"
Skelton was bringing to order the US House Armed Services Committee, which he chairs, for a full hearing into the problems at Arlington. What problems? We'll drop back to the June 11th snapshot:
In the United States, the Arlington National Cemetery scandal continues to garner (deserved) attention. Richard Sisk (New York Daily News) sums it up very well in two sentences, "They didn't arrive at Arlington National Cemetery as unknown soldiers. The Army just treated them that way." Julian E. Barnes (Los Angeles Times) offers this overview, "The inspector general, Lt. Gen. R. Steven Whitcomb, found one case involving personnel killed in Iraq or Afghanistan. In that instance, two grave markers had been switched. Other cases involved areas of the cemetery used to inter personnel from earlier conflicts. [. . .] The extent of the problems at one of the nation's most venerated memorials was not entirely clear. In some cases, grave markers had been knocked over and not properly replaced, the report said. Other reported cases involved poor record-keeping. Whitcomb said there was no indication of mistakes at the point of burial." Michael E. Ruane (Washington Post) adds, "The investigators found that these and other blunders were the result of a 'dysfunctional' and chaotic management system at the cemetery, which was poisoned by bitterness among top supervisors and hobbled by antiquated record-keeping." Those looking for a strong audio report on the story should refer to The Takeaway where Salon's Mark Benjamin is one of the guests and Dorothy Nolte (her sister is buried into Arlington Cemetery).
That's the most recent problem. And apparently we're supposed to pretend this is the first problem of that kind in recent times. It's not. Dropping back to the September 24, 2009 snapshot for that day's US House Veterans Committee's Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs hearing chaired by US House Rep John Hall. That hearing, US House Rep Steve Buyer provided a visual display of various national cemeteries and noted the good and the very, very bad such as dingy, dirty headestones of which he commented, "This should not matter that this is the marker of someone who died in the Civil War. It shouldn't matter. It shouldn't matter if it was someone who died in the Revolution or someone who died that's interned in Mexico City." The weeds, the lack of appropriate care to the grounds, the appalling conditions were all in the visuals projected for all to see by Buyer in that hearing. This is from his exchanged with the Dept of Interior's Katherine Stevenson.
US House Rep Steve Buyer: Let me ask you something, Ms. Stevenson, tell the committee here, what are your needs? What do you believe your needs are to raise the standard within the Dept of Interior?
Katherine Stevenson: The report that I just mentioned [in opening statement] will have some recommendations for funding and it will have recommendations for increased treatment of, uh, cleaning and so on.
US House Rep Steve Buyer: What are your goals?
Katherine Stevenson: Our goals are the same as the goals set by the National Cemetery Administration. We have the same three standards, height and alignment, clean stones and level grave sides as they do.
US House Rep Steve Buyer: How many cemeteries did you go to in the review?
Katherine Stevenson: Four.
US House Rep Steve Buyer: How many do you have in your system?
Katherine Stevenson: Fourteen.
US House Rep Steve Buyer: Why wouldn't you go to all fourteen cemeteries?
Katherine Stevenson: We wanted to do it as quickly as we could and get some sense of uh what was going on -- in the ones that you mentioned, for example, Andersonville was one of them. So we took ones that were fairly close to Andersonville.
US House Rep Steve Buyer: Did you go to -- what are the four that you went to?
Katherine Stevenson: Andersonville, Andrew Johnson, Fort Donaldson and Stones River.
US House Rep Steve Buyer: Andrew Johnson? Is that the -- that's the one in Tennessee? That's the one in Tennessee? [Stevenson nods.] Have you sent inquiries out to the other ten?
Katherine Stevenson: No, sir. No more than usual. I mean, we-we talk to them a fair amount.
US House Rep Steve Buyer: Alright. You've got fourteen. Alright, there's a disconnect here. I'm not going -- I'm not in a fight with you here, okay? I want us to raise the standards, so when this review -- this report -- comes out, I'm going through it.
Katherine Stevenson: Good.
US House Rep Steve Buyer: The light's on you, okay? So what I -- what I -- My immediate sense here is is when I think the Secretary tells me he's going to do a review, that it's going to be of all 14 cemeteries. I don't want something done quick and easy. Alright? I want this to be done correctly. And if your sense is and your counsel to us is that four is going to be sufficient well [shrugs] that's fine but is what you're asking me is, "Steve, just pause here. When you get the report, you're going to be satisfied?"
Katherine Stevenson: [speaking very slowly] You know, you can choose a photograph in any of these cemeteries and [picking up speed] any, I bet, of the veteran cemeteries that are managed by other people and we will have some scenes that are perfect and some scenes that are not. And I know that that's true in the cemeteries that we manage. We are trying to do our very best for the veterans and for their burial places.
US House Rep Steve Buyer: Alright. Well your standard of very best doesn't meet the standards established by others. So we're going to take your standard of very best and we're going to raise it. We're going to raise your very best even higher. Okay? And, uh, I didn't go out and selectively choose to find what I think would be the worst photograph. It's easy to go out there and take that photo. And I was extremely upset the day I saw a veteran being buried in a cemetery like I saw. It's one thing -- it's one thing, you know, we've all been to cemeteries and we've seen the conditions of some of them but to think that this was an active cemetery under the stewardship of the federal government was extremely disheartening. I-I-I'm going to pause here, Mr. Chairman, give it back to you under the time.
That the committee yesterday was angry was not doubtful. But the Committee was never going to go to rough. Secretary of the Army John McHugh was the main witness. McHugh is not only a former member of Congress, he's only been on the job since September. So less than a year later he's appearing before the Congress that knows where he was before he was the Secretary and that he stepped forward with the information on the problem very early on and did not attempt to bury it. This exchange was fairly typical in terms of the cordial relations between the Committee and the witness but it did also bring up some larger issues.
US House Rep Solomon Ortiz: Secretary McHugh, so good to see you again and I want to welcome you to your old committee. And with you at the helm there, I know that things are going to work out. [Lt] General [Steven] Whitcomb, it's always a pleasure to have you back here. And thank you for your honest and frank dialogue. You know with a significant number of mismarked and unmarked graves, what is the Army doing to reach out to the families of these deceased warriors, service members? And what is the Army doing to properly account for this unmarked or mismarked graves to accurately mark the sites? And the report only focuses on portions of the Arlington National Cemetery. Do you think that this problem exists in other areas of the cemetery? And, you know, I know we focus on Arlington. But you know we have cemeteries many places: Moroco, Africa, Belgium and I'm just wondering. I hope this is not a widespread problem that we have but, if it does, I know that you're going to look at it and take care of it. So maybe you can respond to my question. Thank you, thank you so much.
Sec of the Army John McHugh: Thank you, Congressman. As I -- As I tried to lay out beforehand, I appreciate the chance to expand upon it a bit. Our first objective is the 211 graves that are identified with map discrepancies. And we are currently working through those, as I believe I mentioned earlier, we have resolved 27 of those. Those will continue and they have to this point of errors and mismarking on the so-called "master map." We will each and every day match records through parent record system -- the map, the burial cards that record the funeral and the soldier, sailor, marine, coast guard or family member involved against headstones where they exist. And where, for example, the map shows a grave and yet there's no record or headstone. What we have done is actually unearthed, through a set procedure and determined in each one of those thus far that indeed the map was in error, that there were no remains in those graves and those graves will be reclaimed and used for appropriate purposes and a fallen hero sometime in the future. After that, we intend to proceed in all likelihood chronologically most recent [to] back. I think those who have lost loved ones in recent years are more concerned and aware of this. But at the end of the day, I should tell you, that it is our intent upon implementation of a truly viable computer and IT system to run matches on all 330,000 of those graves, and where we find similar discrepancies, begin the process of validating or finding out what the issues are with each-each one of those discrepancies. As to reaching out to the loved ones, on the first day we established -- first day of the announcement, when I released the Inspector General's report, we established a call center, we announced the number for that call center and, as of the last count I had available, we've had 867 calls into that center -- of those we have resolved 169 of those cases. And as we go forward, we are contacting each and every one of those -- of those persons who called and expressed concern to update them. And we'll continue to do that until we can work through the entire -- the entire list. We are not at this time calling people who have not expressed concern to revalidate that, indeed, they don't have an issue. For the vast majority of family members, they feel -- our conjecture is -- that they feel confident. But where we do have expressions of concern, we work with those people directly and we will continue to do that until we've answered every concerned loved one's question.
US House Rep Solomon Ortizi: My time is up now, but my other question was going to be: As soon as you finish with this, you don't think that the other cemeteries that we have in other foreign countries have any such problems like we encountered here at Arlington?
Secretary of the Army John McHugh: Well I can't possibly know that. I can tell you this, they'd be -- those graves and cemeteries are operated by and large by the Veterans Administration's National Battle Monuments Commission. I can guarantee you they will take lessons learned from our experiences and also apply them. The Chairman of the Battle Monuments Commission Max Cleland has agreed to support us -- as I mentioned in my opening statement -- in creating an advisory and oversight committee. So he will be actually part of our procees. Being the great leader that he is I know that he will take our experiences and utilize them to whatever end is necessary within their purview.
US House Rep Mac Thornberry asked a question that's popped up in several e-mails to this site since the scandal broke. Thornberry wanted to know about an unearthing. How did you identify the remains? McHugh testified that the outside of the coffins are marked with the names of the fallen. And, in addition, this can be tested with DNA. "We have not ruled out the possibilty of opening caskets."
Stying with the topic of the US Congress, US House Rep Biill Delahunt's office released the following Tuesday:

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- U.S. Rep. Bill Delahunt announced today that he would oppose further funding for military operations in Afghanistan.
Delahunt, who serves as the Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe, said the following:
I believe that the time has come for a new approach in Afghanistan. Rather than the massive military and nation-building endeavor currently underway -- that continues to produce dubious results, according to the latest report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction -- the United States and its allies should focus our energy on combating al Qaeda and its ideology. Most importantly, emphasis should be placed on refuting al Qaeda's twisted perversion of Islam through public diplomacy, development, and other changes in policy that encourage ordinary Muslims to reject the fanatics who are trying to hijack their religion.
Until there is such a shift in strategy, I cannot support any further funding for the war in Afghanistan.
I have not come to this decision easily. For years, I supported the effort in Afghanistan. It was one of my reasons for opposing the Iraq war. That conflict undeniably distracted from Afghanistan, as I predicted at the time. The previous Administration took its eye off the ball, prioritizing its obsession with Saddam Hussein over the pursuit of al Qaeda. The invasion of Iraq actually strengthened al Qaeda by convincing many in the Muslim world that the U.S. is – as Osama bin Laden falsely claims – at war with Islam. That further undermined our efforts to defend America and bring to justice those who actually attacked us on 9/11.
Furthermore, there is the painful reality that our economy is still in serious trouble, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq come at an enormous cost to the American taxpayer – close to $1 trillion, according to some estimates. And of course, we have already lost over 1,000 Americans in the war in Afghanistan. Thousands more have been injured, many so badly that they will require care for the rest of their lives. There will never be an appropriate price tag for the suffering they and their families have had to go through. But if we are to be serious about fiscal discipline, we must reconsider the costs of this war and whether this is the best way to use our military in the defense of our nation.
I want to be clear: I am not proposing that the United States abandon the Afghan people. We have a moral obligation to help them. I am particularly concerned about the fate of women in Afghanistan, and believe that we cannot allow them to suffer as they did underneath the Taliban. But the fact of the matter is that our current policy is not succeeding in bettering their lives.
Likewise, I am not na├»ve about the dire threat to the United States posed by al Qaeda. Unlike Saddam Hussein, al Qaeda really are out to kill us, and simply withdrawing from Afghanistan will not appease their hatred. Osama bin Laden and his cohorts must be brought to justice – or destroyed. But we have to be smarter in how we combat them. Our highest priority must be convincing the Muslim world that al Qaeda is a cancer that Muslims themselves need to eradicate. We should redouble our efforts to that end.
As I said, I have not come to this decision lightly. I continue to support President Obama's overall foreign policy approach, because I am convinced that he is succeeding in changing global perceptions of America in ways that will ultimately make our country safer and more prosperous. But I no longer believe that his current strategy in Afghanistan will be successful. President Obama must use the opportunity presented by the change of commanders in Afghanistan – a move that I support wholeheartedly – to adjust course. Until that happens, I will oppose further funding for the war in Afghanistan.

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