WRAL Investigates

Arlington cemetery mix-up hits home for Raleigh veteran

Posted November 11, 2010 5:30 p.m. EST
Updated November 11, 2010 7:49 p.m. EST

— 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.

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.