At least two graves were marked with the wrong headstones for more than four years at the state-run veterans cemetery in North Little Rock before the errors were recently noticed and corrected.
Arkansas Department of Veterans Affairs leaders last week acknowledged the error and others, including improperly disposed headstones and misaligned grave markers at the Arkansas State Veterans Cemetery at North Little Rock.
A federal assessment of the burial grounds obtained by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette indicated the cemetery had also violated standards by letting graves sit for months without permanent markers.
Hampered by staffing shortages and challenging terrain, state officials are working to hire employees, increase training and secure more federal funding, said Bill Wussick, assistant director for state veterans cemeteries, in a Friday interview.
"Our state does a real good job in resourcing, funding and providing us with what we need. I don't think, from my experience, that they really understand what the true workload is," said Wussick.
State VA leaders said they recognized the errors but noted that staff members are proactive about inspecting and correcting problems.
At least one official has raised concerns that Arkansas veterans and their families may consider burial options elsewhere if cemetery staffers aren't able to rectify the errors at the North Little Rock cemetery.
Gregory Brown, a member of the Arkansas Veterans Commission, alluded to incorrectly placed headstones at the cemetery during an April 19 meeting of the commission. Brown told state officials the cemetery couldn't have mourning family members paying their respects at the wrong graves. The commissioner also noted the cemetery had 164 headstones still waiting to be placed on gravesites.
"If we're messing that up, we won't get more veterans coming to Arkansas. They're going to run away. They are going to want to be interred somewhere else," he said.
As an appointee of the governor's office, Brown said he wanted to ensure Gov. Asa Hutchinson knew of the concerns.
"If the governor is aware of it, I'll be quiet and sit down. But if he's not aware of it, we've got hell to pay because it's going to hit the news. And when it hits the news, it's not going to be the local news, it's going to make the national news," Brown said.
When reached for comment by phone last week, Brown directed requests for comments to the governor's office.
In a statement on Friday, Hutchinson said the state-run cemetery in North Little Rock faces many of the same challenges as other large veterans cemeteries.
The governor said he was unaware of any unmarked or mismarked graves at the cemetery. He noted that reviews of the burial grounds by the National Cemetery Administration had not revealed any unmarked or mismarked graves.
"For many reasons, Arkansas is an attractive state for veterans and military retirees," Hutchinson said in the statement. "We will continue to do our best to care for our veterans, and we expect to see an influx of veterans seeking to make Arkansas their home following military service."
When asked whether cemetery staff were aware of any mismarked graves, Sue Harper, spokeswoman for the state Department of Veterans Affairs, said officials recently identified and corrected two headstones placed out of sequence.
The headstones marked the wrong graves for more than four years before a contractor noticed the error "on or about April 27." After verifying correct sequence, workers reset the headstones, Wussick said.
"When they went out there to place these headstones, somebody just swapped [them]. Not intentionally. Nobody does this intentionally," Wussick said.
While state officials learned of the error more than a month ago, they had yet to notify the family members of the interred. When asked why, Wussick said workers mismarking the graves was a "field error" and the burials were correct.
Wussick and Nathaniel Todd, secretary of the Arkansas Department of Veterans Affairs, both agreed the department should notify family members of the error. State officials plan to contact the families on Tuesday, according to Todd.
"I'm confident that's an isolated incident ... it could happen again but I'm pretty confident that's an isolated incident," said Wussick.
Along with accepting eligible members of the armed forces, the cemetery will admit the spouses, unmarried children and verifiable life-long dependents of veterans, according to the state's website.
Veterans cemeteries are renowned for their meticulously aligned rows of headstones, but perfect alignments has proved challenging at the Arkansas State Veterans Cemetery at North Little Rock.
Cemetery officials broadly define a "misaligned headstone" as a marker that is "not within alignment of other headstones, the grave or graves and does not meet [National Cemetery Administration] standards for alignment," according to Harper. She said the cemetery wasn't sure how many headstones were misaligned, but every section at the cemetery has misaligned headstones.
It is near impossible for workers in North Little Rock to determine if headstones are properly set over crypts after graves are filled in, Wussick said.
The cemetery's rocky soil means staffers can't be sure if they're hitting a crypt or a buried stone when using probes. And ground penetrating radar and other imaging technology isn't available to the cemetery, Wussick said.
When asked if mourning family members may be paying their respects at headstones that aren't located above the graves of their loved-ones, Wussick said he couldn't say.
"I can't give you an answer to a question that I don't know... I don't want to dabble in hypotheticals because this is too important to those families," he said.
Todd noted the cemetery faced staffing challenges and other hardships during the pandemic, including an ever-increasing number of burials. The priority, he said, has been ensuring that burials can go on as scheduled.
"As I prioritized things, we have ensured that we have interment capabilities for our veterans today," said Todd. "We will address this. We will take corrective actions within our resource constraints."
PILE OF HEADSTONES
State officials Friday admitted cemetery workers failed to properly cover discarded headstones slated for destruction.
A visit to the cemetery on Thursday revealed a pile of fractured headstones in a wooded area near section J. Someone had scrawled "destroy" on at least one of the fragments. Other bits of stone lay half submerged in a pit of stagnant water nearby.
The inscriptions on some of the pieces remained legible, including veterans' names and military service information.
Federal standards require veteran cemeteries to ensure inscriptions on destroyed headstones are no longer legible, according to the National Cemetery Administration's website.
When asked why the headstones weren't properly destroyed, Wussick said he didn't have an answer.
"They should have been properly destroyed," he said.
When Todd asked Wussick if cemetery staff had completed the destruction process, Wussick said, "No." Todd then characterized the error as a failure to cover the stones with a tarp or other temporary cover until the destruction process was complete.
After properly destroying the stones, workers would bury the fragments and mark the location, Wussick said.
After a second interment, when a veteran and their dependant or spouse are reunited, policy requires workers to remove the original grave marker which lists only the name of the first person interred in the grave. Workers must then properly destroy the original marker or bury it with the crypt.
Headstones may also need to be destroyed and replaced if they are damaged.
Under federal rules, veterans cemeteries should have headstones set over new graves within roughly two months of burial.
Of the 356 interments performed at the cemetery in the last six months of 2020, only 23% were marked with headstones or niche covers by the end of March 2021, according to a National Cemetery Administration report obtained by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
The figure falls well short of the federal target of 95%.
"Promptly setting headstones and niche covers is important because it helps ensure veterans are memorialized in a timely manner and may provide potential closure for families," reads the report.
Inspectors also noted "a couple hundred headstones sitting in the spoils area that have not been set," according to the report.
All of the graves without headstones or niche covers were marked by temporary markers. Workers have since placed permanent markers on all the graves identified by the report, according to Harper.
In sections A and B of the cemetery, a layer of hard rock has prevented workers from burying more than one coffin in some graves. After consulting with family members, state officials have disinterred already-buried corpses from these sections and buried them with their dependents or spouses in other areas of the cemetery.
Cemetery leaders have relied on $17 million in federal grants since 2012 to expand the burial grounds, realign grave markers and address flooding related to underground springs.
State officials attributed many of the recent shortfalls at the cemetery to staffing challenges.
Only seven of 13 positions at the cemetery were filled as of Tuesday, Harper said. Documentation provided by the department indicates that at least six positions at the cemetery had turnover rates of at least 100% in the last four years.
Hiring challenges were compounded during the pandemic when several staff members contracted covid-19, Todd said. Cemetery staff had to rely on the North Little Rock Street Department, U.S. Marines, Arkansas National Guard and other state agencies to keep up with burial requests, according to Wussick.
Completing all the tasks necessary to run the cemetery – from cutting the grass and picking up flowers to placing headstones and burying caskets – could be overwhelming for the short-handed team.
Despite the challenges, the cemetery continued offering timely burial services for veterans and their family members, Wussick noted.
"Our No. 1 mission is to provide the burial option for veterans and family," he said.
In recent months, state officials have relied on contractors to bolster their staff. The department is in the process of recruiting and hiring cemetery staff, according to records provided by the agency.
"These are decisions that are part of our process to ensure that we have a cemetery that meets National Cemetery Administration standards," said Todd.
One current employee of the cemetery declined to comment for this article. Two former cemetery employees declined to comment citing an ongoing federal investigation of the cemetery.
When asked if any state or federal agencies – including the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs' Office of Inspector General – were investigating the cemetery, Harper directed the question to the Office of Inspector General.
A spokesperson with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs said the Office of Inspector General as a matter of course does not deny or confirm ongoing investigations.
Wussick said he would talk to any concerned veterans or family members if they call the cemetery at 501-683-2259.
Allegations of unmarked or improperly marked graves have plagued other veteran cemeteries across the country.
A U.S. Army investigation of Arlington National Cemetery in 2010 revealed workers had improperly handled cremated remains and left at least 211 graves unmarked or misidentified, according to the Army.
The next year, workers discovered at least two unmarked graves at the Vicksburg National Military Cemetery in Mississippi, prompting concerns that dozens more veterans might lie buried without markers, according to the Associated Press.
An investigation of the Houston National Cemetery in Texas found 65 gravesites that failed to meet federal standards, according to a report released by the Office of Inspector General this year.
The Arkansas State Veterans Cemetery at North Little Rock is one of two state-run veteran cemeteries. There are also three federally-run veterans cemeteries in Arkansas.
The latest federal inspection of the Arkansas State Veterans Cemetery at Birdeye in 2021 found one headstone out of a random sample of nine niche covers and headstones wasn't placed according to the cemetery's layout plan.
State officials weren't immediately able to comment on the error since the deficiency was not addressed in the cemetery's corrective action plan, Harper said Friday.
Inspectors determined 78% of headstones and niche coves at the Birdeye cemetery were installed in proper height, plumb and alignment, falling short of the 90% target.
The cemetery's corrective action plan indicates staff set headstones higher than federal standards to allow the markers to sink to the correct height.
Harper said state officials were not aware of any allegations of misaligned graves or unmarked graves at the Birdeye cemetery.
State officials submitted corrective action plans for both the Birdeye and North Little Rock cemeteries as required by the federal assessments.
As of Tuesday, the Arkansas State Veterans Cemetery at North Little Rock contained 9,286 graves; the cemetery in Birdeye contained 767.