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123 burial problems found at VA cemeteries

Eric Gay / AP

A flag sticks out of a new gravesite at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery, Tuesday, Jan. 24, in San Antonio.

The Department of Veterans Affairs found 123 burial problems at military cemeteries across the country, including cases of misplaced headstones and at least eight cases of people buried in the wrong gravesites at several cemeteries, according to a review by the department's National Cemetery Administration. 

The findings come just months after revelations of prevalent burial problems, including misplaced remains, at the Army-run Arlington National Cemetery. 

The Washington Post first revealed the details of the VA audit on Monday.

While many of the problems at Arlington were caused by an old paper-record system, the problems found at seven Veterans Affairs cemeteries across the country resulted from sloppiness during renovations, the review found. In some cases, headstones were removed temporarily and replaced one plot away or in different burial sections from the correct grave site, including at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery in Texas and Dayton National Cemetery in Ohio.

Veterans Affairs spokesman Gary Tallman said grave markers were removed by contractors who installed fresh turf to repair the damage caused by soil erosion or ground shifting. Headstones were shifted when contractors returned them to the gravesites. As a result of the mismarked graves, family members of veterans were incorrectly placed in the wrong gravesite.

The VA did not release the names of the families affected to protect their privacy. Tallman said the department has contacted or will be contacting them to apologize.

"We shouldn't be making errors," he told msnbc.com. Tallman added that at no point were any of the remains improperly handled. 

To prevent similar problems in the future, contractors will be required by the VA to leave the markers lying horizontally at the gravesite rather than remove them during renovation work. Officials also said gravesites and their surroundings will continue to be regularly inspected.

The VA conducted its audit in 85 of its 131 cemeteries, reviewing 1.3 million headstones and markers. Tallman said the 123 problems represent only a tiny percentage, given the scope of the audit.

"We certainly would desire all the numbers be zero," Tallman said, "but unfortunately that was not the case."

The final report will be released once the Golden Gate and San Francisco National Cemeteries have completed their reviews.

The audit was launched after employees of the National Cemetery Association found in July 2011 that a contractor at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery had shifted 47 headstones one plot away from the correct gravesite. Four family members of veterans were incorrectly placed in the adjacent gravesite as a result.

Cemetery staff notified the families affected and, in October 2011, reset the 47 headstones and relocated the incorrect burials. Similar corrective actions were taken or will be taken at the other cemeteries involved in the audit: Dayton National Cemetery in Ohio, Santa Fe National Cemetery in New Mexico, Beverly National Cemetery in New Jersey, Loudon Park National Cemetery in Baltimore, Philadelphia National Cemetery in Pennsylvania and Houston National Cemetery in Texas.

Following the revelations of widespread burial problems at Arlington, some members of Congress had called for the transfer of the cemetery to the VA. 

A recent review of nearly 260,000 grave markers at Arlington revealed no further evidence of misplaced or misidentified gravesites.

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