WASHINGTON – Angry lawmakers on Wednesday sharply questioned the Army on its confusion over the location of some veterans' remains at Arlington National Cemetery, as service officials described the slow "laborious" process of ensuring every grave was properly identified.
Rep. Ike Skelton, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, called for a "100 percent survey" of the cemetery and its operations in the wake of the scandal.
"I'm angry, period," said Skelton, a Missouri Democrat, at the start of Wednesday's hearing.
"How in the world could this tragedy be allowed to happen?" he asked the two witnesses, Army Secretary John McHugh and Army Inspector General Lt. Gen. Steven Whitcomb.
Earlier this month, an internal investigation led by Whitcomb concluded that there were at least 211 discrepancies between burial maps and grave sites. The review found lax management of the cemetery, where employees relied on paper records to manage the dozens of burials each week and maintain thousands of existing grave sites..
In his testimony, McHugh described the management of the cemetery as operating largely independent from the rest of the Army with little oversight. He also blamed the outdated methods used to track the grave sites.
McHugh said that 27 of the 211 discrepancies discovered have been sorted out since the findings were released three weeks ago. He warned lawmakers that the process was labor-intensive and would take time.
The Army has taken 867 phone calls from the public on the issue and resolved about 169 of those, he said.
"The Army is doing and will continue to do all that is necessary and possible to right these unimaginable, unacceptable wrongs," McHugh told the panel.
Skelton asked whether the Army should be stripped of its responsibility for operating the cemetery. McHugh said that decision should be up to the president and the Congress, but that he thought maintaining the historic graveyard was the Army's job.
"We feel it is the responsibility of the military, particularly in time of war, to carry those heroes to their final resting place," McHugh said.
Called "our nation's most sacred shrine," Arlington National Cemetery is the burial site for troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well service members from past conflicts dating back to the Civil War.
About 300,000 people have been buried there with military honors. An average of 30 funerals are conducted there every day.
McHugh left Congress last year as the House panel's top Republican from New York. Because McHugh has only been with the Army since fall 2009, lawmakers said they didn't hold him personally responsible.
Iowa Democratic Rep. Leonard Boswell said he thought McHugh struck the right conciliatory tone despite the upsetting findings.
"We'll fix this," Boswell told McHugh.
Associated Press writer Sagar Meghani contributed to this report.