October 06, 2010
Tim Kauffman

AFGE Urges Use of Federal Employees, not Contractors, if VA Takes Over Arlington Cemetery

WASHINGTON – If Congress decides to transfer Arlington National Cemetery from the Army to the Department of Veterans Affairs, federal employees – many of whom were hired as disabled veterans – should perform the work, a top union official said today. 

The growing scandal surrounding mismanagement at Arlington National Cemetery highlights what can happen when federal agencies outsource their services to poorly managed contractors, said J. David Cox, national secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of Government Employees and former first executive vice president of the AFGE National Veterans Affairs Council.

“This is what happens when you have contractors running things instead of federal employees,” Cox said.

The best solution if Arlington is turned over to the VA is to rely on federal employees to manage and maintain the site. The VA’s National Cemetery Administration has a long tradition of employing veterans to maintain its more than 130 national cemeteries. However, NCA acknowledges a growing and widespread use of contractors, especially at new cemeteries.

The Army Times newspaper endorsed the transfer in an editorial in September, stating that putting the VA in charge “would be a logical step toward establishing professional standards for an institution that has fallen far short of the mark for a very long time.”

An inspector general’s report released in June documented extensive record-keeping problems at Arlington National Cemetery that have resulted in mismarked graves, no records for dozens of gravesites and countless other problems. On Sept. 15, the Army confirmed that two service members were buried in the wrong graves.

Many of the problems stem from the Army improperly contracting out information technology services and other vital support functions – including inherently governmental work – without exercising basic contract management and oversight, the IG found.

The findings call to mind the deplorable conditions that were exposed in 2007 at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, another military institution that fell into neglect due to the Defense Department’s overzealous privatization agenda.

“Contractors simply do not bring the same level of commitment and dedication to the job as someone who has served our country,” Cox said. “We must be sure that we don’t simply transfer Arlington’s problematic contracting practices to VA national cemeteries. Veterans are honored to serve fellow veterans as VA employees, and there is no higher honor than maintaining national cemeteries.”

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