Witness Testimony of Ami D. Neiberger-Miller, Director of Outreach and Education, Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors
Because of our role in caring for thousands of families of America’s fallen military since 1994, the Tragedy
Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) is uniquely qualified to comment on this matter. Ami Neiberger-Miller is a surviving family member with multiple loved ones interred at Arlington National Cemetery. In my role as a TAPS staff member, I have worked with several families to communicate with Cemetery administrators under both the old and new leadership.
I. Evaluation of Progress to Date In Addressing Deficiencies in the 2010 Inspector General’s Report
- Family reactions to the Army Inspector General’s report were mixed and fell across a wide spectrum.
- TAPS praises administrators for positive steps: an upgraded phone system, addressing manpower shortages, and instituting consistent policies and procedures among the Cemetery workforce.
- In spite of this progress, much remains to satisfy the 101 recommendations and 76 findings in the Inspector
- General’s report. After steady progress, I would rate the team at Arlington National Cemetery about 40 percent of the way to the goal line.
- Regulatory deficiencies and the slow pace of work updating the Code of Federal Regulations leave the new leadership without a firm foundation upon which to build a future for the Cemetery.
- Families grappling with questions about verifying the burial locations of their loved ones at the Cemetery have struggled to understand the information given. Securing assurance for some families has been problematic, especially given the nature of the antiquated paper recordkeeping system and the potential emotional wounds opened by invasive measures.
- Cemetery leadership have struggled when conducting dis-interments and re-interments, and also struggled at times with connecting families to the branch of service.
II. Opinion on the Future of Arlington National Cemetery
- Some within Congress and others are calling to transfer the Cemetery to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
- There is not a consistent opinion among surviving families on this matter. I know a few families who support the Cemetery remaining under the Army’s management. What matters to families is the care and support they and their loved ones receive from the management of the Cemetery.
- VA cemeteries rate highly with surviving families. TAPS would not oppose a transfer to the VA.
- TAPS would work cooperatively with any agency managing Arlington National Cemetery.
III. Recommendations for Improvements in Cemetery Operations
- Continue to pursue all legal means to render a full accounting of the burial locations at Arlington National Cemetery. -Write and promulgate new administrative rules for the Code of Federal Regulations for the Cemetery.
- Involve a focus group of bereavement professionals accredited by the Association of Death Education and Counseling, TAPS, the National Funeral Directors Association and surviving families in discussing the procedures being taken to correct burial discrepancies at the Cemetery.
- Involve trained bereavement counselors and social workers alongside Cemetery staff in talking with surviving families who are grappling with issues related to the burial locations of their loved ones.
- Set up an advisory group comprised of Veterans Service Organizations to provide input to the Cemetery administrative staff and offer feedback, similar to the group already in place that the VA consults.
- Communicate more fully with surviving families and the American public about the steps being taken to correct burial discrepancies at the Cemetery.
- Hold town hall meetings in cooperation with TAPS for surviving families.
- Improve cooperative relationships among the military service branches that render honors at the Cemetery.
- Update the floral policy for the Cemetery to be consistent with current grieving practices and include mementoes in the policy, as well as collection procedures.
Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee:
I am pleased to have the opportunity to submit this testimony on behalf of the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS). TAPS is the national organization providing compassionate care for the families of America’s fallen military heroes. TAPS provides peer-based emotional support, grief and trauma resources, seminars, case work assistance, and a 24/7 resource and information helpline for all who have been affected by a death in the Armed Forces. Services are provided to families at no cost to them. We do all of this with no financial support from the government because TAPS is funded entirely by the generosity of the American people.
TAPS was founded in 1994 by a group of surviving families following the deaths of their loved ones in a military plane crash. Since its founding, TAPS has offered comfort and care to more than 30,000 people. The journey through grief following a military death can be isolating and the long-term impact of grief is often not understood in our society today. On average, it takes a person experiencing a traumatic loss five to seven years to reach his or her “new normal.”
TAPS has extensive contact with the surviving families of America’s fallen military service members, making TAPS uniquely qualified to comment on issues affecting the survivors left behind. Since 1994, our 24/7 resource and information helpline has received approximately 184,260 calls from survivors. In 2010, TAPS received an average of 68 calls per day from military survivors and placed 264 calls per day to survivors. TAPS intaked 2,864 newly bereaved military survivors in the last year and received 10,649 calls to our 24/7 resource and information helpline. Last year, TAPS placed approximately 63,452 calls to survivors to let them know they were not alone, follow up on a case inquiry, or discuss needed services and support. One hundred percent of our 42 professional staff members are survivors of a fallen military hero or military family members. Ninety-eight percent of our total workforce are volunteers, including active military service members, who have donated 48,000 hours of their time in the last year to be trained in how to companion a child who is grieving and volunteer their time to support the children left behind by our fallen.
My name is Ami Neiberger-Miller, and I am the director of outreach and education at TAPS. I am a surviving family member of our fallen military and have deep personal connections to Arlington National Cemetery. Tragedy struck my family in 2007 when my 22-year old brother, U.S. Army Specialist Christopher Neiberger, was killed in action in Baghdad, Iraq. My brother is buried in section 60 at Arlington National Cemetery. My father-in-law, U.S. Marine Corps Captain Norman Vann Miller, who died in 2003 of natural causes, is buried in section 66 at Arlington National Cemetery, which is one of the sections identified in the Inspector General’s report as having significant problems with burial discrepancies. Additional relatives of my family are interred in other locations in the Cemetery. The beginning of my grief journey after my brother’s death is part of the HBO film, “Section 60: Arlington National Cemetery,” which describes the community of families that grieve together at the Cemetery. I began working with TAPS in October 2007. In my role as a staff member with TAPS, I have supported many surviving families of our fallen military and veterans in communicating with the administration of Arlington National Cemetery from 2007 to date.
I have been asked by the subcommittee to “provide written comments on TAPS’ views on the efforts by the new administration at Arlington National Cemetery to correct the egregious deficiencies documented in last year’s Inspector General’s report.” I was asked “to include your evaluation of their progress to date in addressing these issues, with particular attention given to the degree of accountability and transparency exhibited, and your expectations regarding their timeline and plan for full correction of all noted deficiencies. I was also asked to provide comment to the subcommittee “regarding the future of Arlington National Cemetery and any recommendations for improvements in the Cemetery’s operations.”
In response to the Committee’s request, my testimony will be segmented into the following three sections: (I) evaluation of progress to date in addressing the egregious and massive systemic deficiencies documented in the 2010 Inspector General’s report, (II) opinion on the future of Arlington National Cemetery, and (III) recommendations for improvements in the Cemetery’s operations.
I. Evaluation of progress to date in addressing the deficiencies documented in the 2010 Inspector General’s report
On June 10, 2010, the Army Inspector General published a report into egregious deficiencies in management and operations at Arlington National Cemetery. The contents of the report were difficult for many families of our fallen military and deceased veterans to hear about. We began receiving calls at TAPS from concerned families even before the news conference announcing the report had ended.
TAPS issued a statement the same day in response saying, “TAPS believes that Army Secretary John McHugh and the military’s leadership are working actively to ensure that Arlington National Cemetery is managed in a manner that befits the service and sacrifice of the more than 330,000 service members and their family members who are interred there.” The statement also noted that the Army “apologized to the community of surviving families, and is taking immediate action to correct this situation and to assure families.”
For families with loved ones interred at Arlington National Cemetery, in my experience, reactions to the Inspector General’s report fell across a broad spectrum:
- Some families were horrified, angry, and deeply concerned about the mismanagement of the Cemetery and the burial locations of their loved ones.
- Some families felt worried and were afraid that they had spent months, and even years, visiting a gravesite that their loved one might not be in.
- Many were confused and unsure what they should ask the Cemetery to confirm their loved ones’ burial locations.
- Some families had difficulty interpreting and understanding what the Cemetery told them, even after they called seeking confirmation of a loved one’s burial location.
- Some families were so deeply grieving that to even doubt, for an instant, a loved one’s burial location, was an emotional leap they could not make. These families either turned off the television or put down the newspaper every time a story came on about the problems at Arlington National Cemetery, or clung to hope that their loved one’s gravesite was not affected.
- Some families were deeply private about their concerns and chose to discuss them internally and reach consensus before making a call to the Cemetery.
- Some families were starkly pragmatic, noting that regardless of burial location, their loved ones were gone, and nothing could bring them back.
The situation posed by burial discrepancies and mismanagement at Arlington National Cemetery is unprecedented. No family should ever have to wonder if their loved one is interred in the correct and marked location. There is no road map to help these families. In June 2010, there was also no road map for the Army and the new leadership team at the Cemetery in how to respond to family concerns.
Working with bereaved and concerned families requires the utmost sensitivity. Training in bereavement and support from mortuary affairs professionals, Veterans Service Organizations, TAPS military bereavement professionals, and others could have saved the families and the Army much heartache and made this process less painful for all involved.
In spite of these challenges, I believe the Army has made positive strides in addressing these problems by taking the following steps:
- Continuing the tradition of executing with great professionalism and care an average of 27-33 military funerals per day. Eight of these funerals involve full military honors with a caisson. As many as 5 funerals occur at the same time. In addition to executing the complicated logistics required for simultaneous and constant military burials, the staff at Arlington National Cemetery also support an average of 8 wreath-laying ceremonies per day at the Tomb of the Unknowns, host dignitaries and heads of state, and host 4 million visitors annually who learn about our nation’s history and legacy of military service.
- Instituting consistent policies and procedures for Cemetery operations staff to ensure that future burial or interment mistakes are not made.
- Instituting a healthier workplace culture that encourages employees to come forward if they make mistakes and correct them quickly, evidenced by prior Congressional testimony submitted by Superintendent Hallinan.
- Sending staff members to training in cemetery operations management.
- Upgrading the phone system at the Cemetery so the public and surviving families can communicate more effectively with the staff.
- Hiring a new superintendent and deputy superintendent with military cemetery management experience.
- Hiring a director for the Army Cemeteries Program who reports directly to the Secretary of the Army.
- taking steps to hire additional staff to address the documented and significant manpower shortage at the Cemetery.
However, in spite of this laudable progress, much remains to be done to satisfy the 76 findings and 101 recommendations made in the Inspector General’s report, released almost a year ago. The management problems revealed at Arlington National Cemetery were massive, systemic, and sweeping.
After a year of steady progress, I would rate the team at Arlington National Cemetery about 40% of the way to the goal line. That may not be entirely satisfying to Congress or to the public, but when you consider the serious and systemic deficiencies identified in the Inspector General’s report, it’s not surprising. Assuming their progress remains at this steady pace, I would expect that most of the deficiencies will be corrected within the next two years.
I personally believe that satisfying the recommendations of the report will require a team approach, because it is a community that is impacted by the problems at Arlington National Cemetery. This team should involve leadership at the Department of Defense, Army officials and staff, mortuary professionals, the National Funeral Directors Association, the Association of Death Education & Counseling, military bereavement professionals from TAPS, surviving families of veterans and our fallen military, the American public, Congress, and many others. Now, I’d like to discuss a few areas where improvement is needed and may require a team approach.
There is a significant need to address regulatory deficiencies impacting Arlington National Cemetery. The Inspector General found that all governing documents for the Cemetery were outdated, noting that the “Code of Federal Regulations, Army regulations, and Standard Operating Procedures are outdated and unsynchronized.”
Many of the serious policy and regulatory issues identified in the Inspector General’s report remain un-acted upon. I’ve heard that while some headway has been made in this regard internally, that these new regulations are being held up by legal concerns.
Many of these items require not just action by the Army and the new leadership team in place at Arlington National Cemetery, but steps will also need to be taken by Department of Defense leaders to update and address federal and army regulations, in accordance with the Administrative Procedure Act.
While the introduction of new standard operating policies and procedures at Arlington National Cemetery itself have significantly improved day-to-day operations, new Federal regulations and Army regulations must be proposed and approved to address the tangled web of conflicting policies and regulations identified by the Army Inspector General and ensure a firm foundation upon which to build the next chapter in Arlington National Cemetery’s history.
Arlington National Cemetery has had difficulty at times communicating with families of veterans and service members interred at Arlington National Cemetery who called seeking confirmation of a loved one’s burial location. Immediately following the release of the Inspector General’s report in June 2010, concerned survivors of veterans and our fallen military began calling Arlington National Cemetery seeking confirmation of their deceased loved ones’ locations, with particular concern being voiced from families of those interred in sections 59, 65 and 66 where 211 mismarked or misidentified gravesites had been identified by the Inspector General. The problems were so massive and systemic, that families with loved ones interred in other sections of the Cemetery not mentioned in the report were also concerned.
Typically, families calling the Cemetery with inquiries were given information found in the Cemetery’s antiquated and non-digitized 3x5 card recordkeeping system. The families sometimes struggled to understand how to interpret what they were being told. To many, it seemed impossible to confirm burial locations from just these records, in an atmosphere where families did not always trust what they were being told.
Even if graves were photographed, the family located additional burial paperwork of their own from the time of the funeral, and additional information was given to the family, some families were left wondering how to interpret this data. Families sometimes did not have the emotional support needed to grapple with the serious issues posed by more invasive measures. Families wondered how they could be assured that their loved ones were in the correct locations, when the Army had let them down in the past? The need to rebuild trust between the Army staff and the families calling, was significant.
One person making that call to Arlington National Cemetery was Air Force Col. William Koch Jr., a retired veteran who called to verify his wife’s grave location. He was initially assured that all was in order and not to be concerned. But Col. Koch was called a few months later by Cemetery officials who reported that his wife had, in fact, not been interred under the marker he had faithfully visited. Col. Koch’s situation and anguish were documented by reporter Christian Davenport in a story in the Washington Post. TAPS was not involved in Col. Koch’s initial request for information from the Cemetery, but his situation illustrates the complex challenges the new leadership team are facing in assuring families, given the records they inherited.
In handling these inquiries, the staff at Arlington National Cemetery and the survivors they were attempting to respond to would have greatly benefited from the input of a focus group of bereavement professionals accredited by the Association of Death Education and Counseling, mortuary affairs specialists, the National Funeral Directors Association, military bereavement professionals from TAPS, and surviving families.
Had Arlington National Cemetery’s situation been treated more like a mass casualty event, such as a plane crash, by the military, things might have fared better for surviving families. The military has considerable expertise in briefing families of those who have died who visit plane crash locations and preparing them for what to expect and see. This expertise, process and knowledge could have genuinely helped the Cemetery’s new leadership and its current staff in addressing many of the concerns voiced by relatives of those interred at Arlington National Cemetery.
Families needed clear communication about how to interpret what they were being told by the Cemetery staff as they sought to understand and confirm the burial locations of their loved ones. Had there been a handout on the Cemetery’s website explaining to the families how to interpret the information they were receiving, and support in helping them think through these complex emotional issues, things might have gone smoother.
Each family must decide on its own, how to approach the unique and unprecedented situation posed by the burial discrepancies at Arlington National Cemetery. It should be recognized that these conversations families are having with staff at Arlington National Cemetery staff are influenced by other factors, including their own emotions, personal feelings about the death, communication within the family, time since the death, funeral experiences of the family, paperwork from the time of the death held by the family, and personal cultural, religious and burial customs.
It is not surprising at all to us at TAPS, who work with bereaved families every day, that at times, communication between the Arlington National Cemetery staff and the families was challenging. Here was a situation guaranteed to stir emotions and grief, for which there was no road map. What is so surprising about the Cemetery’s interaction with families on this issue to me, is that more people have not come forward who are upset – given the emotional nature of the conversations this situation required.
In the immediate days after the Inspector General’s report was released, there was panic among some families. One family called TAPS with great concern, worried that their loved one was missing completely, because his gravesite at Arlington National Cemetery was not recorded in the VA Grave Locator database online.
The family told TAPS: “I hope that you can help me. I searched the national registry (gravelocator.cem.va.gov) and discovered there is no record of my father. He is buried in Section 59. When my sister called ANC to find out about this, she was told that it was highly unlikely that our father was involved in the mix up. This is not reassuring considering the national registry does not find any record of him. No information was taken in order to pursue this further. Please help and advise us what steps to take next.”
After some calls and communication with Cemetery staff on behalf of the family, I found out that not all gravesites at Arlington National Cemetery are listed in the VA’s grave locator system, even though this database includes a section for grave sites at Arlington National Cemetery. This information helped assure the family that their loved one had not been completely lost.
But the family’s interaction with Cemetery staff was troubling, as they seemed unable to be assured and said no information from them had been recorded, nor had they received additional information from the Cemetery. It took an intervention by TAPS on their behalf to provide essentially basic information to reassure this worried family.
The confusion among families was so significant that TAPS staff were even asked if the discrepancies at Arlington National Cemetery might be replicable to veteran’s cemeteries in other states that are administered by the Department of Veterans Affairs’ National Cemetery Administration (NCA). We replied that the report applied to only Arlington National Cemetery.
As recently as two months ago, TAPS was contacted by a veteran having trouble interpreting the information Arlington National Cemetery staff gave him when he called trying to verify his wife’s burial location. He called TAPS for help and sought confirmation from the Cemetery that he would truly be buried with his deceased wife after his own death at some time in the future. After calling the Cemetery, he was left feeling as though his quest for assurance could not be entirely fulfilled.
The veteran told me, “Although my fears are not completely dissolved by Arlington's assurances, I know that certainty can only be achieved by disinterment and DNA testing, and I am not prepared for such an invasive solution. I will just have to live with the uncertainty that Arlington mismanagement has created and hope that the new managers will see that my late wife and I are interred together.” That’s a truly sad statement.
But given the significant emotional barriers posed by disinterment for grieving families, it’s also not surprising. While some in Congress and the media have repeatedly questioned why Arlington National Cemetery has not deployed backhoes and taken more invasive measures to address burial discrepancies, this case illustrates exactly why families are a deeply-enmeshed, necessary, and complicated piece of the puzzle in resolving burial discrepancies at Arlington National Cemetery.
In some cases, families simply cannot authorize more invasive measures emotionally or personally. Yet the condition of the records the new leadership inherited, leave families few other non-invasive options for confirming burial location, other than trust and hope. Under federal regulations (§ 553.19), it’s the right of families to decide what happens to their loved ones, as they are currently interred, at Arlington National Cemetery. It is a complicated legal and emotional matter that cannot be easily or quickly resolved.
Placing trained bereavement counselors, compassionate mortuary professionals or skilled social workers alongside cemetery staff as they talk with concerned families grappling with concerns about the burial locations of their loved ones would give concerned survivors additional support when they call the Cemetery. Involving therapists and licensed counselors with training in bereavement to talk with surviving families would have made these conversations easier for the families, and likely also easier for the Army staff involved.
At times over the last year, I felt it was challenging to convince the Army that being more forward-thinking in its communications approach would benefit both the families and the Army.
As a public relations professional with nearly two decades of experience in communications, I felt it was critical for the Army to talk about the situation at Arlington National Cemetery and the steps being taken by the Army to address it. The implementation of an effective communications plan with clear objectives for communicating with the public and surviving families of those interred at Arlington National Cemetery as soon as the Inspector General’s report was released would have tremendously improved the situation.
Because we work on a daily basis with surviving families of our fallen military, as a representative of TAPS, I undertook a pro-active effort to reach out to the new leadership at Arlington National Cemetery as soon as it was in place. This was consistent with our previous practice, as TAPS has assisted families with gravesite issues, headstone corrections, or concerns about policies at the Cemetery over the years. Due to the nature of our work, TAPS is also part of several events at the Cemetery each year held by and for surviving families.
A meeting was held between TAPS staff and Kathryn Condon, the newly appointed executive director of the Army Cemeteries Program. During this meeting, we proposed hosting a town hall meeting where Ms. Condon and other Cemetery staff could meet with surviving families in an informal and private environment for open discussion and engagement.
The town hall event was held in late October 2010 and facilitated by TAPS. It was attended by a number of military survivors, some of whom had traveled from great distances to participate. Families were also able to send in questions via email that were asked at the meeting. Ms. Condon and Mr. Hallinan, the newly-named superintendent, attended the town hall session and spoke directly with surviving families. It was a very productive discussion and TAPS would like to see the Cemetery staff take more proactive measures to communicate with surviving families directly.
Concerns with dis-interments and re-interments at Arlington National Cemetery.
In our experience, the times the new leadership and cemetery staff have struggled, have not been with day-today operations or the daily funerals at the Cemetery. Rather, the times the new leadership have struggled to relate to or communicate with families, has been when dealing with families stressed about the interment locations of their loved ones due to the previous leadership’s mis-management, or families who were coming to Arlington National Cemetery for procedures out of the normal realm of daily operations for the cemetery staff, such as dis-interments and re-interments.
TAPS staff provided emotional support to two families who pursued dis-interments of their loved ones at Arlington National Cemetery due to suspected burial discrepancies. I was involved personally in both cases. In both situations, the decisions involved for the surviving family members were difficult and emotional.
Since its founding, TAPS has supported military families making decisions about the dis-interment and re-interment of remains, so we have experience in this area. In some of these past cases, the families were deciding whether to lay to rest additional remains that were recovered after a funeral, or were contemplating moving a loved one’s remains to a different cemetery.
Many families have told us that disturbing a grave site, moving remains, or questioning the location of remains, has complicated their grief journeys. Decisions about disturbing a grave site are deeply personal, involve a family’s culture and burial customs, and are fraught with emotion and difficulty.
The surviving families of our fallen military and veterans deserve our support in working through these issues. While the staff and leadership currently at Arlington National Cemetery are aware of the significant emotional and personal issues involved in dis-interments, the news media and political leadership do not seem to fully understand or note these concerns, and some have speculated as to why there have been so few dis-interments to-date. The simple answer is this that dis-interments are fraught with difficulty and emotion. Not every family is able or willing to take such an invasive step to confirm the location of a deceased loved one. Legally, disinterments remain the choice of the surviving family and the primary next of kin of the deceased service member.
In the first dis-interment case that TAPS staff was involved with, the family’s fear that their loved one was not located under the marked headstone was correct. Additional grave sites were disturbed to locate their loved one’s remains. Other burial discrepancies were found and other families were deeply hurt and upset, including retired Air Force Col. Koch, whom I referenced earlier.
In the second case, TAPS staff were present at a dis-interment to support the Warner family. The family was relieved to find that their loved one, a Marine who died in combat in Iraq at age 19, was buried in the marked location. While our staff questioned at the time the conduct of the Cemetery’s staff in how the dis-interment for the Warner family was handled, it is our hope that the Cemetery leadership learned from these experiences and have modified their protocols and procedures for the future.
In a third situation, TAPS staff arrived at Arlington National Cemetery to support a family re-interring their son who had been killed in action in Iraq while serving with the Marine Corps. The family had discovered years after they buried him in another state, that he had desired to be placed at Arlington National Cemetery. When the family arrived at the designated ceremony time at Arlington National Cemetery, the gravesite was not dug and the service delayed for 45 minutes while the Cemetery staff got things in order. I was not personally present at this situation, but did hear about it from TAPS staff who were there. I was told that the Marine Corps funeral director, who was on-site at the Cemetery, had to take charge of this troubling situation and insist a grave be dug. It should be noted that another re-interment that TAPS staff attended to support another family in a similar situation, went smoothly.
In two of these situations, TAPS staff notified the Marine Corps about the dis-interment and re-interment events scheduled to happen at Arlington National Cemetery, prior to their occurrence. In both cases, TAPS was surprised to learn that the Marine Corps funeral director was not being kept apprised by Cemetery staff of these impending events and had not been notified of these events for fallen Marines. We found this to be concerning, as we know families very much appreciate the support of a loved one’s service branch when going through something as difficult as a dis-interment or re-interment.
II. Opinion on the future of Arlington National Cemetery
Arlington National Cemetery is a treasured shrine to our fallen military service members and veterans and honors all who take the oath to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. Arlington National Cemetery carries deep historical significance and meaning to the surviving families of those interred there and the American people as a nation.
The valor that rests at Arlington National Cemetery and at the gravesites of thousands of military service members and veterans across our country, is what makes their burial grounds a place of respect and honor for all Americans.
It should be noted that the recent tribulations about Arlington National Cemetery’s management, are only a few years within a long and proud history. I believe it will take the response of a community, to rectify the problems identified at Arlington National Cemetery, and it may take as long as three years, to truly address all of the very serious issues identified in the Inspector General’s report.
As an independent nonprofit Veterans Service Organization that supports the families of our fallen military in the immediate days and years following the deaths of their loved ones, TAPS knows how important it is to families that fallen service members be laid to rest with honor and dignity.
We recognize that many within Congress and other areas are calling for a transfer of Arlington National Cemetery to the VA. Surviving families placing their loved ones at VA cemeteries have a universally high satisfaction rate in our experience. Their positive experiences are borne out by the VA National Cemetery Administration’s high positive rankings with the American Customer Satisfaction Index.1 TAPS is grateful that Arlington National Cemetery employees are benefiting from training provided by the VA and that a new superintendent and a new deputy superintendent for Arlington National Cemetery were recruited from within the VA system.
TAPS would not oppose the transfer of Arlington National Cemetery to the VA, because of the high ratings surviving families have consistently given the VA’s management of its cemeteries. At the same time, TAPS is also happy to continue partnering with the Army leadership and the leadership team in place at Arlington National Cemetery today to facilitate support of families and provide valuable insight from bereavement professionals. TAPS would seek to work cooperatively with any agency managing Arlington National Cemetery.
It should be noted that there is not a consistent opinion among surviving families on the issue of whether Arlington National Cemetery should be transferred to the Department of Veterans Affairs. I know of a few families who support the Army continuing to administer Arlington National Cemetery. One family member attending the town hall meeting facilitated by TAPS for families to meet the new leadership at the Cemetery, felt very strongly that the Army should retain control of the Cemetery.
Frankly, most surviving families are more concerned about the quality of care provided for their loved ones and their families, rather than which agency is listed as managing a Cemetery.
III. Recommendations for improvements in the Cemetery’s operations.
I offer the following recommendations for improvements in the Cemetery’s operations:
- Continue to pursue all legal means allowable to render a full accounting of the burial locations at Arlington National Cemetery. The current administrative leadership staff have outlined a plan to examine burial discrepancies at the cemetery on a sliding scale of concern that escalates action steps and only pursues invasive measures with the involvement and consent of the family of the deceased. While some have suggested that more invasive measures, such as dis-interment and DNA testing of remains, should be undertaken more frequently, it should be recognized that there are significant legal and personal issues with such actions. Any invasive efforts must be approved by the primary next-of-kin of the deceased and all living immediate family members, per federal regulation (§ 553.19).
- Write and promulgate new administrative rules for the Code of Federal Regulations that rectify the problems with Arlington National Cemetery’s policy and management oversight. Appoint a committee within the Army to draft these rules and submit them to the Secretary of the Army and the Department of Defense for commentary. Allow a public comment period of at least 60 days and in compliance with the Administrative Procedure Act.
- Involve a focus group of bereavement professionals accredited by the Association of Death Education and Counseling, TAPS professionals in military bereavement, the National Funeral Directors Association, and surviving families in discussing the procedures being taken to correct burial discrepancies at Arlington National Cemetery. Involve this group in reviewing protocols for talking with survivors about burial discrepancies and in communicating about what the Cemetery is doing to resolve them and improve management. Involve this group in discussions about the cemetery’s protocols for dis-interments to ensure that every effort is made to provide
- Involve trained bereavement counselors and social workers alongside Cemetery staff in talking with surviving families who are grappling with issues related to the burial locations of their loved ones. Consult with TAPS and other organizations, such as the Association of Death Education and Counseling (ADEC) or the VA’s Vet Centers (which provide bereavement counseling to surviving families) to provide therapists and licensed counselors with training in bereavement to talk with surviving families who are concerned about the burial location of their loved one.
- Set up an advisory group comprised of Veterans Service Organizations to provide input to the Cemetery administrative staff and offer feedback. A similar group is in place within the National Cemetery Administration managed by the VA. This group provides input and valuable dialogue between Cemetery administrators and these organizations that touch veterans, survivors and their families.
- Communicate more fully with surviving families and the public about the steps being taken to correct burial discrepancies at Arlington National Cemetery. Create a comprehensive communications plan for Arlington National Cemetery. Create a page on the Arlington National Cemetery website that explains the steps being taken by the administrative leadership to correct these problems. Publish a fact sheet for surviving families on what is being done to rectify burial discrepancies and management changes. Explain in detail how the burial and interment records are being researched and compared, and offer guidance to help families working through these issues. Include links to videos, news stories and other information.
- Hold town hall meetings in cooperation with TAPS for surviving families of those interred at Arlington National Cemetery. Involve Cemetery leadership and staff in sharing information on a regular basis with the community of survivors and veterans in these private sessions where families can ask frank questions and learn about the changes at the Cemetery. TAPS is able to assist with facilitation if needed.
- Improve the cooperation and relationships among the military service branches that operate and render honors at Arlington National Cemetery. Strive to emulate the atmosphere found at Dover Air Force Base, where all of the service branches participate in dignified transfers for our fallen military and work cooperatively.
- As recommended in the Inspector General’s report, update the floral policy for Arlington National Cemetery. This update should make the policy consistent with current grieving practices, and take into consideration the safety and security of those visiting and working at the cemetery. Include the word “mementos” in the floral policy and describe clearly how often gravesites will be cleaned. The policy should also specify which items will be retained for historical archive purposes by the Army’s Center for Military History. Locate appropriate funding for the Army Center for Military History’s pilot program to collect significant mementoes left at gravesites in Arlington National Cemetery. They are an important part of our nation’s history and legacy.
It will take a response by a community – comprised of surviving families, Veterans Service Organizations, bereavement professionals at TAPS, Army staff and leadership, the National Funeral Directors Association, mortuary affairs specialists, the Association of Death Education and Counseling, and others to deal with the significant burial discrepancies and problems identified at Arlington National Cemetery by the Army Inspector General.
We cannot go back and undo decades of poor record-keeping and mis-management. We must find a way forward that supports surviving families left behind by our military and veterans.
Personally, I would like to see Congress and others, separate their anger over what happened with the previous leadership of Arlington National Cemetery, from the efforts being taken by the new leadership to address the Inspector General’s report. I think the new leadership needs to be held accountable for its actions and how it treats and communicates with surviving families, but I fear that anger over the non-punishment of the previous officials, has adulterated public dialogue and discussion about Arlington National Cemetery, and become a stumbling block to helping all of us move forward.
Together, we can find the way forward as a community and provide better and more compassionate and comprehensive support to surviving families as they face the serious issues raised by burial discrepancies.
The stakeholders involved in the rectifying the burial mistakes at Arlington National Cemetery include not just the Army, but also veteran’s service organizations like TAPS, mortuary affairs professionals from within the military and the professional funeral services community, bereavement professionals, funeral representatives from the service branches, and the surviving families of our fallen military and deceased veterans.
By working together, we can build a new chapter in Arlington National Cemetery’s legacy as a national shrine that honors all who have served and died for their country.
1 VA’s National Cemeteries Lead Nation in Satisfaction Survey, VA News Release, January 25, 2011, Retrieved from http://www.va.gov/opa/pressrel/pressrelease.cfm?id=2036 adequate emotional and psychological support for surviving families.
Neither Ami Neiberger-Miller, nor the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS), have received any Federal grant or contract, relevant to the subject matter of this testimony, during the current or previous two fiscal years.