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Altman: Wait to bury mother at Arlington frustrates Marine

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Published:   |   Updated: December 16, 2013 at 10:46 AM

Isaiah Gray, who retired from the Army as a command sergeant major, served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam and was wounded three times over the course of his career. When he died seven years ago, he was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

On Oct. 5, his widow, Daisy Gray, also died. She was 83.

And their son, Stanley Gray, a Marine veteran, has been trying ever since to get his mother — whose cremated remains are being stored at the Blount & Curry Funeral Home in Tampa — buried at Arlington as well.

He reached out to officials at Arlington. He reached out to his neighbor, Rep. Kathy Castor.

As of Saturday, Gray had no answers and the experience has been frustrating.

“It is not only the time, but the callused and unfeeling manner in which I have been talked to, which is beyond bothersome,” Gray wrote to me via email. “One only has one mother to bury. I find it beyond disgusting and unfeeling.”

Like a lot of folks frustrated by bureaucracy and red tape after a loss, Gray reached out to me. And I was only too happy to help.

My first step was to reach out to Castor on Wednesday, to find out what, if anything, she was doing on Gray’s behalf. It turns out that a day earlier, she had sent Gray a letter saying she reached out to the Army, which oversees Arlington, on his behalf.

Thursday morning, I continued my pursuit for answers. After a few phone calls, and email exchanges with Gray, I learned the scope of the problem, some of the causes and, in less than an hour, learned that a solution was at hand.

“Getting into Arlington can take up to two to three months,” says Robert Lytle, the Blount & Curry chapel manager. “That’s pretty standard. It is a fairly busy cemetery.”

Lytle, who has been a funeral director for 20 years, says the long wait “has been going on forever.”

But it never gets easy for the family.

“It can be difficult,” says Lytle. “Everybody is looking for closure.

Lytle says other alternatives, like Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell, Bay Pines National Cemetery or the Sarasota National Cemetery are offered.

“But it is such an honor to go to Arlington that most families don’t take that option.”

Blount & Curry has upward of about a dozen people a year buried in Arlington, says Lytle.

My next call was to Arlington, where Jennifer Lynch, the public affairs officer, took down the information I gave her about Daisy Gray.

A few minutes after I rang off, she called me back with some good news: A call to Gray was coming, and “we will give him the three first available dates, and he can pick from those dates.”

There was no delay in the process, she said, and the decision to reach out to Gray was independent of any contact from Castor or myself.

Arlington National Cemetery is indeed a busy place, says Lynch.

“We get between 35 and 42 calls per day from people requesting services at Arlington. The maximum amount of services a day we do is 30.”

That means that every week, as many as 60 people are forced to wait for services, a figure that keeps building up as the year goes on.

I learned a few other things in researching this story.

Casketed remains have first priority, says Lynch, because of the storage issues.

And there is a peak burial season and an off-peak burial season. March through August is the peak season. Daisy Gray’s wait for a burial service was actually shorter than it could have been because this is the off-peak season.

For his part, Gray says he doesn’t believe Arlington’s response was a coincidence. And by Saturday, when the promised phone call from Arlington never came, his confidence in a resolution waned.

“Sir, no calls, no nothing,” he wrote me in an email. “Can you write an article on how veterans are treated? This is not logical!”

Turns out, on Friday, Arlington called the funeral home as per “the wish of the next of kin,” Lynch said Monday.

There will be a funeral at Arlington National Cemetery for Daisy Gray at 3 p.m. Jan., 22. She will be laid to rest in the same hollow ground as her husband.

 

 

Incinerators questioned

 

Given that the U.S. spent more than $80 billion last year in Afghanistan, $5.4 million is a comparative drop in the proverbial bucket.

But what happened to that money, as outlined in a recent Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction report, speaks volumes for our involvement there.

The report, which I received Friday but was embargoed until today, takes the Army Corps of Engineers to task for paying the money to a civilian contractor to set up two incinerators at Forward Operating Base Sharana in Afghanistan even though an inspection in May found that they weren’t working and were so poorly designed that even if they were, trash would have had to be hand-fed into the incinerators and the resulting ash would have had to be hand-loaded out.

The issue of incinerators on forward operating bases strikes home. I wrote a series of stories about how the toxic fumes from burn pits, where everything from human waste to plastic is burned, potentially creating health problems for thousands of troops and leading to the cancer death three years ago of an Army sergeant who used to live in Spring Hill. The incinerators were ordered to be installed at all bases established for 90 days with 100 people by U.S. Central Command after studies showed the link between the burn pits and disease.

So at FOB Sharana, instead of refuse being incinerated, it was burned in pits, counter to Central Command rules. And the company got paid. And, on top of all that, two months ago, Sharana was closed and the entire base was turned over to the Afghans, who took the non-working, fully paid-for incinerators and deconstructed them, “presumably for scrap,” according to the SIGAR report.

“I don’t know what the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers considers success but spending more than $5 million on something that was never used is not what I call successful to the American taxpayer,” said Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John F. Sopko. “This project appears to have been a complete waste. Even worse, the open air burn pit used instead of the incinerators put the health of our troops at risk.”

 

Military sites may lose

 

In October 2001, I got a tip that the website of the Saudi Binladin Group — the global construction firm owned by the family of You Know Who — had a pre-set expiration date of 9/11/01. I wrote a series of stories exploring whether that was coincidence or something more sinister. Though I never did get a conclusive answer, the stories led me to write a lot over the years about how jihadis use the web; for recruiting, fundraising, awareness and in some cases command and control.

That’s why I was fascinated by the Trans Regional Web Initiative, a network of 10 websites managed by U.S. Special Operations Command and operated by the Geographic Combatant Commands, who also coordinate with the State Department.

In October, the initiative had nearly 4 million article reads and just under 2 million unique visitors.

Its purpose was to “change the narrative” in the cyber battlespace, according to TRWI program manager Roger Smith, who spoke to me before a congressional budget deal reached last week essentially killed the program. There was nearly $20 million requested for the TRWI, which had the support of the White House, but the budge deal strips the funding, leaving $2 million to shut it down. The Senate still has to vote on the National Defense Authorization Act and it then must be signed by President Barack Obama, but at this point, it seems like the TRWI is dead.

Socom and Centcom declined comment, so I turned to Chuck Wald, a retired four-star general who as deputy commanding general at U.S. European Command was instrumental in creating a TRWI website aimed at North Africa, called Mahgrebia.com.

The TRWI faced stiff competition in tough budget times.

“It is another tool in the tool kit that would be nice,” said Wald, who now heads the Department of Defense Practice, Federal Government Services for Deloitte. Military Information Support Operations on the web “is a multi-tool requirement. Eliminating that tool decreases the possibility of success, it doesn’t eliminate it,”

Brandon soldier returns

As a staff sergeant with the Florida National Guard, Christopher Ludd has been deployed three times, including a bloody tour in Ramadi, Iraq in 2003 during which he lost a number of friends.

He is currently in Qatar, awaiting a trip back to the U.S., but thanks to a combination of Army regulations and tight finances, it looked like he wouldn’t be able to spent Christmas with his wife, Christine, and their three children in Brandon.

He just couldn’t afford it.

Ludd’s unit is due to travel to Camp Shelby in Mississippi sometime before. But because it is around the Christmas holiday, the returning troops, about 300, are being given passes to go off base.

But those passes don’t come with any money to travel — most likely by bus — between there and home.

At the last minute, however, Ludd’s unit got some good news. An anonymous donor came forward to kick in the $200 a piece it would have taken to bring the unit’s members home. That led me to make one of the happier calls I get to make.

“This is super exciting,” said Mrs. Ludd. “I am going to look for a big box to hide him in for the kids, for their Christmas present. They do not know he is coming home, ”This is probably going to be the best Christmas ever.”

 

Marine dies in Afghanistan

 

The Pentagon announced the death of a Marine in Afghanistan last week.

Lance Cpl. Matthew R. Rodriguez, 19, of Fairhaven, Mass., died Dec. 11, while conducting combat operations in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. He was assigned to 1st Combat Engineer Battalion, 1st Marine Division, I Marine Expeditionary Force, Camp Pendleton, Calif.

There have now been 2,280 U.S. troop deaths in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, the nation’s longest war.

Last column of the year

 

Just a quick note. I am finally taking some time off, so this is my last column of the year. Merry Christmas to those who celebrate, and Happy New Year. Thanks for reading and apologies in advance for all the great stories I won’t be able to get to.

haltman@tamaptrib.com

(813) 259-7629

@haltman

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