Leaders of the team that recently took over management of Arlington National Cemetery told Congress Thursday they walked into “a house that didn’t have a foundation,” but had begun to make progress in reforming an organization that, they said, had a staff bereft of leadership and training.
Kathryn Condon, the Army’s executive director for cemetery programs and Patrick Hallinan, Arlington’s superintendent, told a hearing of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations that they had made significant strides toward professionalizing the cemetery’s management in the wake of a scandal last year.
Arlington’s superintendent and deputy superintendent resigned in the summer of 2010 after the Army Inspector General found at least 211 misidentified grave sites and noted that cemetery operations were poorly managed, understaffed and antiquated.
“In less than a year we have taken several steps to address the past issues, including rebuilding the workforce, overhauling the automated internment scheduling system, establishing a consolidated call center, implementing a financial management and procurement system, and employing a new chain of custody [for remains] that weren’t there before,” Condon said.
Condon said the new management team found the workforce at Arlington had received little training in cemetery operations, including at the supervisory level.
“For example, for one of the supervisors who we recently sent to the Veterans Affairs Department’s training center, it was the first time he was sent to training in 20-some years of employment at the cemetery,” she said. “There weren’t standards, there weren’t procedures and they weren’t held accountable.”
That training occurred under a recently-penned memorandum of agreement between VA and the Army. The MOA lets Army cemetery staff receive professional training at VA’s training facility in St. Louis.
Hallinan, who oversaw operations at VA’s 131 national cemeteries before being recruited by the Army to lead Arlington, said the procedures used by VA and private cemeteries now were being institutionalized at Arlington.
“We’re now sending our employees out for training, and they’re being trained on-site,” he said.
Hallinan said that was a contrast to how things looked when he and Condon took over.
“No leadership. No guidance. No direction. Absolutely no training,” Hallinan told the subcommittee. “They’re one person deep out there. But I can assure you with 100 percent confidence that under our watch, if they do not respect and honor the service of our veterans, if there is misconduct, it will be addressed.”
That assurance was insufficient for Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.), who said the entire workforce at Arlington should have been replaced rather than only the superintendent and his deputy. He bristled at Condon and Hallinan’s defense of the cemetery workforce.
“This is an organization that is rotten to its core,” Coffman said. “The leadership that I’m seeing here couldn’t lead starving troops to a chow hall.”
Committee members also objected to the fact that Army Secretary John McHugh had not personally attended the hearing and that the previous cemetery management was given what members regarded as a slap on the wrist, getting only a written reprimand.
Karl Schnieder, the principal deputy to the assistant secretary of the Army for Manpower and Reserve Affairs, said the service agreed with the latter objection.
“The frustrating thing about that is that the superintendent and the deputy superintendent retired right after the [inspector general’s] report was delivered to the secretary,” Schnieder said. “And our jurisdiction to take any adverse action against them evaporated the day that they retired.”
Condon said the Army would continue to take steps to improve management at the cemetery, and also was setting up an outside advisory panel to measure the new team’s progress.
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