Sadly, Arlington's internal problems have materialized on the grounds themselves. Despite nearly 10 years and countless dollars spent on computerizing its operations, the cemetery still relies mostly on paper burial records that in some cases do not match the headstones. "There are numerous examples of discrepancies that exist between burial maps, the physical location of headstones, and the burial records/grave cards," the cemetery admitted in a 2008 report to Congress.
And in a relatively remote area of the cemetery, where 600 service members from Iraq and Afghanistan are laid to rest, personal mementos placed on graves are left out to rot in the rain for days, ruined by workers with power washers, or thrown into a trash bin.
"The aesthetics of the cemetery are deceptive," says Gina Gray, an Army veteran of eight years who served in Iraq and who was the cemetery's public affairs officer in early 2008, before she was fired over a clash with her boss. "To the naked eye, it is a place of sacred beauty and a tribute to our nation's heroes," says Gray, who has been rehired as an Army contractor at Fort Belvoir, in Virginia. "But if you scratch below the surface, you will find that it's really just window dressing. They've put these pretty curtains up to hide the ugliness on the inside."
At the center of the chaos is Higginbotham, Gray's former superior and a focus of the Army investigation. While cemetery Superintendent John Metzler is the titular head at Arlington, Higginbotham runs the show, say current and former employees. A tall and imposing man, Higginbotham has worked at the cemetery since 1965. He started as a security guard and worked his way up to deputy supervisor in 1990. In his current position, he has earned a reputation for running the cemetery with an iron fist. (Higginbotham declined to talk to Salon.)
One of Higginbotham's failures, say employees, has been his inability to rectify disturbing discrepancies between burial records and information on headstones. For years, Arlington has struggled to replace paper-and-pen burial records with a satellite-aided system of tracking grave locations. "My goal is to have all the gravesites available online to the public, so people can look up a grave from home and print out a map that will show exactly where the gravesite is," Higginbotham told Government Computer News in April 2006. Such systems are standard at other cemeteries, like the Spring Grove Cemetery in Cincinnati, Ohio, nearly identical to Arlington in age and size. Yet an effort begun in 2000 to set up a similar system at Arlington remains unrealized.
Salon is doing an in-depth investigation into the problems at Arlington. This is part one. Please check out the article if you are so inclined. For me, this is such a sickening travesty.