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Posted at 5:40 PM ET, 06/10/2010

Maybe thousands more missing at Arlington

By Jeff Stein

Today’s news that Arlington National Cemetery may have misidentified or misplaced over 200 remains is actually a year old, and only a fraction of the story.

At least hundreds more graves -- and perhaps thousands -- may turn out to be misidentified or missing, says’s Mark Benjamin, who has been investigating records discrepancies at Arlington since early 2009.

“Despite nearly 10 years and countless dollars spent on computerizing its operations,” Benjamin wrote almost a year ago, on July 16, “the cemetery still relies mostly on paper burial records that in some cases do not match the headstones.”

Benjamin cited the cemetery’s 2008 report to Congress admitting there were “numerous examples of discrepancies that exist between burial maps, the physical location of headstones, and the burial records/grave cards.”

But Benjamin’s biggest score -- until Arlington’s managers were finally forced out Thursday -- may have come in April, when he found that one of the cemetery’s most sacred sections, holding the graves of almost 6,000 Civil War veterans, “including African-Americans who served with the U.S. Colored Troops, as well as thousands of freed slaves,” was a mess.

“In Section 27 …hundreds of graves shown as ‘occupied’ on the map are unmarked today. That map, in fact, shows 5,816 occupied graves in Section 27. There are only 5,303 headstones today. (Salon counted.),” he wrote.

That calculates to about 500 remains gone missing -- in one section alone. Arlington holds the remains of 320,000 fallen.

It thinks.

“The system is still broken,” Benjamin said during a brief telephone interview.

The results announced by military officials today -- 211 remains missing or unaccounted for -- should not be trusted, he said, because they were gleaned from a survey of only three sections in the cemetery.

There could be many hundreds, if not thousands, more remains missing or graves misidentified, he said.

“The problem is headstones,” said Benjamin, who has won a clutch of journalistic awards for his military stories in recent years. “Lots of bodies are likely out there, but with the wrong headstone.”

The Army’s idea to scan the remains without digging them up is not likely to settle the matter, either, he said. For complete accuracy, the cemetery would have to unearth each coffin and finger the name tags.

“It’s a nightmare,” Benjamin said.

“There are over 320,000 people buried there. What if only one per cent are found to be misidentified -- in the wrong place, with the wrong headstone, or with no headstone at all? You do the math.”

That would be 3,200 unaccounted for -- 16 times the number in today’s news.

By Jeff Stein  | June 10, 2010; 5:40 PM ET
Categories:  Media, Military  
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Misplaced outrage. Sloppy accounting of Civil War graves is NOTHING compared to the rudderless military strategy that is killing dozens of Americans, Europeans, Afghans, and Pakistanis every day.

Posted by: kcx7 | June 10, 2010 7:40 PM | Report abuse

Absolutely correct kcx7. War tends to mess up facial appearances and the like, hence the use of dog tags. It would be interesting to learn how often bodies in civilian graves got mixed up before the twentieth century. People simply do not check to make sure the body is in the right location except when there is a question of foul play.

Posted by: Martial | June 10, 2010 10:31 PM | Report abuse

As you can see from this, the official dog tag was not in actual use during the civil war.

42% of civil war dead are listed as being unidentified. That a sizable chunk were improperly identified is almost a given.

Posted by: Martial | June 10, 2010 10:35 PM | Report abuse

Some messes aren't worth cleaning up. I'd rather my father or grandfather be left in peace, than dig up every body in Arlington to check name tags against headstones. If I go to a headstone with his name on it, I'll commune with his spirit just as well whether his remains are buried under the headstone or in the next row over.

Posted by: pundito | June 11, 2010 12:51 AM | Report abuse

This is a job for... Google Streetview.

Seriously, Streetview, a GPS, and click-through ads are the solution. People can see each grave to assure everything's alright, and then click-through to buy life insurance or burial plots or something. It won't find the missing graves but it will prevent others from going missing.

Posted by: blasmaic | June 11, 2010 2:51 AM | Report abuse

Dog bites man.
Dimwitted incompetent government bureaucrats.
Let's put health care in the hands of these worthless morons.

Posted by: graywolf98 | June 12, 2010 9:41 PM | Report abuse

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