Mark Warner: Fixing what’s broken at Arlington National Cemetery
It was last June when many of us first heard about Arlington’s reliance on paper records and maps, and the systemic disorganization and shameful errors that inevitably resulted. I think all of us were especially shocked and appalled to learn about dozens of instances of misplaced or misidentified remains at the cemetery.
As an American, a Virginian, a member of the Senate and as the proud son of a World War II Marine veteran, I thought it was important to take action to try to correct these problems.
So last August, we announced a unique agreement with the Army. Several of our leading Northern Virginia technology companies assigned their brightest problem-solvers to work with the Army to honestly assess the back office disaster at Arlington, and recommend a responsible path forward.
We already knew that Arlington Cemetery officials were relying on hand-written files, paper maps and 3-by-5 index cards, which was an entirely inadequate system for responsibly tracking the 300,000 military heroes buried at Arlington and the 6,000 military funerals conducted there every year.
As a result of this assessment, we now know there were other disappointing management issues at the cemetery:
- Arlington relied on a single fax machine and an inadequate telephone system, which created a difficult and frustrating bottleneck for thousands of families trying to send death certificates, service records, letters of confirmation and other important documents.
- This continued reliance on pencil and paper records required families to produce duplicate documentation that in many cases already existed in the Pentagon or VA computer systems – but for some reason these computer networks were not linked.
- Funeral urns containing the remains of our nation’s military heroes frequently were stored on top of file cabinets, in closets and on spare desks at Arlington for extended periods of time, labeled with a temporary, hand-written sticker, awaiting the arrival of the appropriate funeral and burial paperwork.
- Arlington grave markers frequently arrived with misspelled names or other inaccurate information because hand-written records were illegible or incorrect.
Now, it is clear these management issues and workflow challenges existed at Arlington National Cemetery for years, even decades – and they certainly won’t be solved overnight.
But this business plan [pdf] prepared by members of the Northern Virginia Technology Council provides the Army with a clear roadmap to bring Arlington National Cemetery into the 21st Century digital age.
If implemented correctly, these recommendations will honor the sacrifice of those men and women who are buried at Arlington. This business plan also will go a long way towards restoring the faith and the confidence of those families who have entrusted the remains of their loved ones to Arlington.
An assessment of this quality and depth typically would cost a client hundreds of thousands of dollars, but it is important to note that these Virginia companies and NVTC provided this public service for free. I want to publicly thank them for this great example of corporate citizenship.
The Army already has replaced the management team at Arlington, and Army leaders say they have taken preliminary steps to address several of the problems identified in this report.
But let me be clear: my interest in fixing what’s broken at Arlington does not end today. I consider it my responsibility to stay focused on these issues, and to continue to press the Army to follow-up quickly and appropriately, so that we can put this disappointing chapter behind us.
Warner, a former telecommunications executive and Virginia governor, serves on the Senate’s Banking, Budget, Commerce and Intelligence committees. He can be reached at www.warner.senate.gov.