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More questions arise in Arlington scandal

The discovery was grisly: 211 cases of unmarked graves, misplaced headstones and even the dumping of human ashes in a pile of dirt.

The Pentagon inspector general’s report this month on Arlington National Cemetery’s mismanagement was shocking. But it’s just the beginning of the scandal at the nation’s most hallowed burial ground. There is good reason to believe there are thousands of such desecrations of our military dead and their families.

How do I know this? Gina Gray told me – and she knows, quite literally, where the bodies are buried.

You won’t find Gray’s name in the IG’s report, but Pentagon sources have confirmed to me that virtually everything in it was a product of the allegations Gray made and the evidence she provided to investigators. Gray, a former Arlington public relations officer fired in 2008 after she spoke out about how cemetery officials were acting improperly, went on a one-woman campaign to expose the wrongdoing at the graveyard.

What she found was so appalling that the Army’s actions so far amount to a “Band-Aid for a sucking chest wound,” she told me in her typically blunt manner. The inspector general detailed 211 problems in three sections of the cemetery, but there are 70 sections at Arlington, she said. “In Section 27 alone there are over 500 problems, and that wasn’t one of the three they released in their report and yet they knew about it.” The IG also missed several mud-caked headstones found lying in a streambed at Arlington this week by the Washington Post’s Christian Davenport.

The 32-year-old Gray, who served in Iraq before working at Arlington, is a classic whistle-blower, and the government should be honoring her for the wrongs she righted at Arlington. Instead, a separate IG report on her firing has been bottled up for a year. It’s long past time for the Pentagon to get that report out and give Gray the recognition she deserves.

I’ve followed Gray’s case because I was the one who started the controversy. When I went to Arlington in April 2008 to cover a funeral of a soldier killed in Iraq, the deputy cemetery superintendent, Thurman Higginbotham, decided to keep reporters (invited to cover the funeral by the family) too far away to see or hear. Gray, new in her job, knew that Higginbotham’s behavior wasn’t grounded in Army regulations. She argued with him. I reported it. Gray was fired.

As a rule, the harder a government agency tries to keep the press away, the more dysfunction that agency is trying to hide. The newly unemployed Gray used her free time to expose the dysfunction at Arlington.

In the summer of 2008, she brought her findings to her congressman, Jim Moran, D-Va., plus Sen. Jim Webb and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin. All were given assurances by the Army – false, as it turns out – that the matter was under thorough investigation.

Even after the Army’s Criminal Investigations Command in May 2009 concluded, according to documents, that Higginbotham made false statements to investigators about unauthorized accessing of Gray’s e-mail, the Pentagon stalled. Finally, after Gray-inspired press accounts about Arlington’s problems began to appear, the inspector general last August began his investigation into the mishandled remains.

Now that the IG report has vindicated her, Gray has more questions: Why hasn’t the Army fired Higginbotham (who is on administrative leave) and his boss, Superintendent John Metzler (who is being allowed to retire)? Why was Gray’s old job at Arlington given to Kaitlin Horst, daughter of Karl Horst, who as commanding general of the U.S. Army Military District of Washington oversees the cemetery? What has become of the millions of taxpayer dollars supposedly spent on electronic grave records at Arlington that don’t exist?

And, more important than all of those: How many more remains have been mishandled or misplaced at Arlington?

Given Gray’s track record, the Pentagon should take that charge seriously. Gray, for her part, has found a new job in the federal government and doesn’t want her old job back. “Mostly what I want is an apology and an explanation,” she says, for “why for two years they knew about this and ignored it.”

Dana Milbank is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group.