By Kevin Freking, Associated Press
WASHINGTON -- After reporting that it had found 102 more misplaced headstones or markers and 21 graves missing markers at its cemeteries, the Veterans Affairs Department told lawmakers Thursday that it's trying to prevent future errors by requiring contractors to keep headstones at gravesites undergoing renovations and by conducting daily inspections.
The department has been auditing its cemeteries around the country and so far has found 249 problems at 13 cemeteries.
A Veterans Affairs official pointed out that the department undertook the audit on its own and that the problems represent a fraction of the nearly 1.5 million gravesites reviewed so far. Still, officials said they recognized the grief and emotional hardship the errors cause.
"We know we have just one chance to get it right," said Steve L. Muro, a VA undersecretary, said in written testimony provided to a House Veterans Affairs subcommittee.
In late January, the VA notified Congress that it had discovered problems with some gravesites where contractors had undertaken renovations and had shifted the markers one grave space away from the correct site. In eight cases, people were buried at the wrong site.
This time, the vast majority of mistakes occurred when headstones were temporarily removed during second interments and not put back on the proper gravesite. During second interments, family members are buried in the same gravesite as the veteran. Those mistakes took place primarily in California, at San Francisco National Cemetery and Golden Gate National Cemetery.
Rep. John Runyan, R-N.J., noted that most of the mistakes occurred many years ago, sometimes decades ago. But he said officials needed to make sure it doesn't happen again.
"There is a pattern here, and I find it totally unacceptable," said Runyan, chairman of the subcommittee that oversees the VA's National Cemetery Administration. "We have a duty to ensure our nation's veterans and their families that these problems will be repaired and never occur again. "
Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Calif., said the mistakes "are as avoidable as they are awful."
The VA said the first phase of its review is now complete and involved reviewing those gravesites where there had been renovations and where there was the highest risk for error. The second phase will focus on 1.6 million remaining gravesites under the department's management.
The VA looked particularly at those gravesites that had undergone renovations to ensure that headstones and markers were maintained at the height and alignment necessary to meeting National Shrine standards.
"We have contacted the affected families where possible, extended our sincere apologies and made appropriate corrections," Muro said.