WRAL Investigates

Arlington cemetery mix-up hits home for Raleigh veteran

Posted November 11, 2010

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— One of the United States’ most sacred burial grounds, Arlington National Cemetery, was a place where Ret. U.S. Air Force Col. William Koch wanted to be laid to rest with his wife of 35 years, Jean.

So, when she passed away in December 2005, she was buried among the thousands of the men and women who served their country.

“Everything Arlington did was great,” he said.

But rain in the days preceding her burial saturated the ground, and the cemetery waited to entomb the casket.

For more than four years, he visited her gravesite, never knowing it was empty.

Koch may never have known until news articles started cropping up about hundreds, possibly thousands, of mix-ups at Arlington -- claims of shallow graves, misplaced headstones and double burials.

In June, an in-depth Department of Defense investigation found dysfunctional management, a lack of established policies and procedures and a failure to automate records.

The cemetery's top two leaders were let go but allowed to retire with full benefits, and Army Secretary John McHugh announced sweeping changes, that included a call center to address family member concerns.

Koch called in August and was assured his wife's grave was fine.

A week later, though, he received a call informing him that his wife was buried in a neighboring grave meant for a staff sergeant who had been discovered buried in the nearby grave with a Navy commander’s wife.

Arlington cemetery mix-up hits home for Raleigh veteran Arlington cemetery mix-up hits home for Raleigh veteran

Eventually, Arlington put up a new headstone at Jean Koch’s grave, but her widower still has questions.

“How many other people are going every day, month, year to a gravesite and thinking, ‘There’s my loved one,’ and it’s an empty grave?” he said.

It’s unclear.

Despite a public records request from WRAL News, the U.S. Army has yet to say how many people have been affected.

That’s why lawmakers, including U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., are vowing to fix Arlington. He is among a group of U.S. senators proposing legislation requiring the Army to prove all gravesites are verified.

“To have it on our home turf in the United States of America – a national symbol disgraced in that way – is just beyond any imagination,” Burr said. “We found a culture at Arlington that wasn't consistent with the promises we made our veterans.”

The bill would move records from paper to an electronic system.

Despite $5 million to $8 million already spent to improve records, little has been done in that area.

“I don't think I can change some of my thinking about Arlington until they confirm they did everything they could,” Koch said.

Koch says he is relieved that he can now visit his wife's grave with confidence. But he says the cemetery still has a long way to go to restore trust.

“Justice is what I want – for me, for my wife, for all others who have gone through this or don't even know there's a problem,” he said.

Koch says he still plans to be buried at Arlington, but he says he hopes he can restore that feeling of respect – of home – before that happens.

21 Comments

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  • billkoch Nov 12, 2010

    If I thought that my interview on WRAL would turn into a political argument, I might not of done it. I believe that one should show respect for the dead and for those left behind. For me, my wife's death was not a joking matter nor a political matter, it was a personal matter until the Army civilians running Arlington National Cemetery made it even more personal. I respect each of you to be able to make comments, but I am really irritated at the type of comments you have made. Most of you need to take a class in respect for others and stop trying to one up each other. My mother used to say if you can't say something nice about someone, don't say anything at all. Maybe you all should think about that.

  • Sherlock Nov 12, 2010

    WHen you get such a high position with trust, one tens to think only of themselves and not others. It was about the money than the job, Retired with all benifits.

  • peppercorns Nov 12, 2010

    IT would annoy me though if I were to be buried and it was next to the wrong man.....lol

  • aerolove2k Nov 12, 2010

    Its like santa claus or god... as long as you believe it exists, it does.

    If you think your loved ones remains are there, then they are. There is no need to hang on to old bones, return them to the earth and create new life from them.

    A grave site is a place for YOU, not for the dead. The dead dont complain. As long as you have a marker, then you should be happy. I have lost many loved ones, and whether or not their bones are in the right place does not matter. They are dead. What matters is that I have a place to go to to have solice, a place that is reserved for ones that loved the fallen. What actually lies beneath the dirt, no one knows unless you dig and it doesnt matter.

  • blahblahblah Nov 12, 2010

    You yankee bashers should concern yourselves more with the illegal Mexicans who are taking over this state.

  • montaguespencer Nov 12, 2010

    First of all ignorance is rampant and hatred makes an ignorant person show his true colors.The president has nothing to do with what is going on at Arlington and only a mentally challenged person would try to bring him into this mess.Secondly the are discrimination laws that to protect people from mentally challenged racists.Hating someone for bring a yankee and a liberal is more than ignorant it is stupid.Some people live to hate here in THE UNITED HATES OF AMERICA.

  • 3labsnme1 Nov 12, 2010

    "More examples of the fine management capabilities of our military personnel."

    RWS-Since the superintendent of Arlington is a civilian and the entire management of the cemetary is civilian maybe your post should read-More fine examples of incompetent civians suckling
    at the financial teat of the government

  • Bill Brasky Nov 12, 2010

    "All that said, why is Obama even a part of this discussion?"

    An earlier poster commented the usual, "this is Obama's fault", nonesense.

  • mpheels Nov 12, 2010

    Well said Bill. I'll also add that we're less than 1/2 through Obama's term, so it's a little early for final judgment. Never mind that he's a relatively young man, and hopefully will live for many years after his time in office ends. Public opinion of past presidents generally improves greatly as time passes. Also, while presidents can be buried in Arlington, very few actually choose to be buried there...

    All that said, why is Obama even a part of this discussion? The problems at Arlington started long before he was in office and have absolutely nothing to do with him. The whole mess is one of the reasons I think cremation is a great idea.

  • Bill Brasky Nov 12, 2010

    The resounding, emphatic answer is NO.

    Your opinion, I believe he is doing a wonderful job fixing the mistakes from both parties.

    The economy is now out of a recession, the stock market is up nearly 4000 points, private employers are hiring in bulk again, unlike the Bush years were we were losing 800k a month and the world is gaining trust in the US again. Face it yachtguychris, we are a global economy.

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