Arlington National Cemetery headstones found lining stream bed

By Christian Davenport
Courtesy of The Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 17, 2010

Several mud-caked headstones line the banks of a small stream at Arlington National Cemetery, the country's most venerated burial ground. Farther upstream in a wooded area, a few others lie submerged with the rocks that line the stream bed.

On Wednesday, after The Washington Post alerted the cemetery to their presence, officials there said they were shocked to find the gravestones lying in the muck near a maintenance yard. Already under fire in recent days for more than 200 unmarked or misidentified graves and a chaotic and dysfunctional management system, cemetery officials vowed to investigate the headstones along the stream and take “immediate corrective action,” said Kaitlin Horst, a cemetery spokeswoman.

Officials said they do not know how the stones got there, whom they belong to, or how old they are. Horst could say only that “they appear to be decades old.”

Were they used as riprap to prevent stream erosion? Were they engraved incorrectly and then discarded? Or were they intended for a landfill — where thousands of weathered or damaged burial markers routinely were sent years ago — and ended up in the mud instead?

One of the headstones offers some clues. It has a cross in a circle at the top, a design that Horst said was discontinued in the late 1980s. And there is writing. It is worn and faded but seems to identify the person as a Navy captain, whose name is something like J. Warren McLaughlin.

Or is it L. Warren McLaughel?

One of the headstones is worn and faded but offers some clues, including that its owner might have been a Navy captain


Cemetery officials said they do not know, but they vowed to research their records.

Efforts Wednesday by Post researchers to learn more about the captain's identity and military record were unsuccessful.

“At this point, we won't be able to tell until we can get in there to reclaim them,” Horst said.

The stream runs under Ord & Weitzel Drive in the northwest corner of the cemetery, across from Section 28. Some of the headstones, stacked in pairs along the stream bed, are visible from the roadway. Others are farther upstream, under a dense canopy of trees.

The discovery follows an investigation of the cemetery by the Army's inspector general, which found 117 graves that are marked on maps as occupied on but have no headstones. The inquiry found 94 more marked on maps as unoccupied even though they have gravestones. In addition, the investigation found that at least four burial urns were unearthed and dumped in an area where excess dirt is kept.

As a result of the scandal, the Army reprimanded Superintendent John C. Metzler Jr., who is retiring July 2, 2010, and his deputy, Thurman Higginbotham, who was placed on administrative leave pending a disciplinary review.

Army Secretary John McHugh appointed a new team to oversee cemetery operations and continue the investigation, which officials said could find even more unmarked grave sites.

Joe Davis, a spokesman for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said he was “stunned” to learned about the discarded headstones.

“Arlington National Cemetery is truly hallowed ground to this entire nation,” he said. “It is an honor to be buried at Arlington. It is an honor to work at Arlington. And over the past week, we're finding out that people are just not doing their jobs.”

Horst said that the cemetery's new superintendent, Patrick K. Hallinan, a longtime cemetery official with the Department of Veterans Affairs, checked out the streamside headstones and ordered their removal.

“They will reclaim the stones and dispose of them properly in accordance with our current headstone-disposal policy,” Horst said.

Headstones are replaced if they are damaged or if the writing on them becomes illegible, she said. At one time, gravestones were discarded in landfills. The cemetery ended that practice because Washington area residents were plucking the stones and using them for patios, driveways and other home improvement projects. Under the current disposal policy, headstones are to be ground up so the names cannot be recognized and then recycled.

Photo of veteran's tombstone in Arlington Cemetery creek startles son
By Christian Davenport
Courtesy of The Washington Post
Friday, June 18, 2010

It was around lunchtime Thursday when Mike McLaughlin settled into a chair in his family room and opened the newspaper. There, on the front page, was a photograph of a burial marker lying in a stream at Arlington National Cemetery and an article that led to a sudden realization.

“This is my father's tombstone,” he called out to his wife.

Then he became, as he said, “unglued.” How could his father — who dropped out of college to serve in World War I, rejoined the Navy the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor at the age of 44 and then served again during the Korean War — be so dishonored?

Upset, he called the cemetery, which had been trying to figure out whom the headstone belonged to after The Washington Post alerted officials there Wednesday morning that several mud-caked markers were lining a stream at one of the country's most venerated burial grounds.

A few hours later, a top Arlington official called McLaughlin back to apologize for his father's tombstone being discarded in such a way and assure him that it will be disposed of properly.

In an interview from his home in the Shenandoah Valley, McLaughlin, a 74-year-old Arlington County native, said he was “appalled.”

“You can't harm Dad, and you can't harm Mom,” he said, his voice cracking. “But the way this was handled is going to affect service personnel who are dying right now and in years to come. They deserve some honor and respect.”

“We thought it was a sacrosanct place,” said his wife, Judé McLaughlin. “I can't believe they'd be so cavalier with such an important thing.”

Cemetery officials said they will take corrective action immediately and are to meet with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on Friday to figure out how the headstones can best be removed without harming the stream or surrounding environment. They confirmed that one of them belonged to J. Warren McLaughlin, a retired Navy captain who died in 1971.

After his wife, Elizabeth, died four years later, the cemetery ordered a new headstone and engraved both names on it, said Kaitlin Horst, a cemetery spokeswoman. That headstone is still there today, in Section 47. The old headstone was discarded and somehow ended up in the stream, along with many others. It was still unclear Thursday how they ended up there or why.

But who was J. Warren McLaughlin?

A patriot, his son said. And a hero. A dedicated father and husband, whose military career spanned five decades and inspired his son to join the Navy.

He was born in Burr Oak, Kan., in 1896, the son of a railroad man, the oldest boy among nine children. He went to college and made good grades but dropped out over the objections of his father, who wanted him to be the first member of the family to receive a college degree.

It was 1917. World War I was raging, and the young J. Warren McLaughlin wanted to serve. After the war, he left the Navy, moved to Arlington and worked as an engineer for the Department of the Interior.

Mike McLaughlin remembers sitting on his father's lap as a young boy in 1941 when the news of Pearl Harbor broke on the radio. His father leapt up at the news. “I was dumped on my butt on the wood floor,” Mike McLaughlin recalled. “I joke that I was the first Washington area casualty of the Second World War.”

The next day, he said his father went to rejoin the Navy and was soon deployed to the Pacific. There, while helping unload a ship, U.S. forces came under attack. An artillery shell landed close to the ship, causing him to fall from one of the decks.

Mike McLaughlin said the Navy wanted to award his father the Purple Heart, but he refused, saying that “his injury was caused by his stupidity, not enemy action,” because he was leaning too far over the rail when the shell hit.

After World War II, the elder McLaughlin served at the Pentagon in the Naval Reserves until the late 1950s. Mike McLaughlin followed in his father's footsteps and became a Naval Reserve officer after college, retiring as a commander.

Arlington has long been an important place for him. It's not only where his parents are buried but his daughter as well. She died when she was 4 days old.

And it's where he used to ride his bicycle as a kid with friends from the neighborhood.

“We'd ride through Fort Myer into the back of the cemetery and have one whale of a downhill ride and out the main gate,” he said.

So he was especially dismayed when the scandal at Arlington Cemetery broke last week. The Army's inspector general found that more than 200 grave sites were unmarked or misidentified and that at least four burial urns were unearthed and dumped in an area where excess dirt is kept.

As a result, the Army has reprimanded Superintendent John C. Metzler Jr., who is retiring July 2, and his deputy, Thurman Higginbotham, who was placed on administrative leave pending a disciplinary review.

Mike McLaughlin had been following the news closely. Then on Thursday, after he settled into his favorite chair with the paper, the story was no longer just about the cemetery. It was about his father's memory.

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