UPDATE: Remains Of War Dead Dumped In Landfill
THEWASHINGTONPOST.COM - The Dover Air Force Base mortuary for years disposed of some dead troops' body parts by burning them and dumping the ashes in a Virginia landfill, a practice that officials have since abandoned in favor of burying the remains at sea.
The Dover mortuary, which is the main point of entry for America's war dead, sent remains to the landfill from 2003 until 2008, according to Air Force officials. The manner of disposal was typically withheld from the relatives of fallen service members. The disclosure comes in the aftermath of several federal investigations into mishandling of remains at the mortuary.
Air Force officials acknowledged the practice Wednesday in response to inquiries from The Washington Post. They said the procedure was limited to portions of body parts that were unable to be identified at first or were later recovered from the battlefield, and which family members had indicated could be disposed of by the military.
Lt. Gen. Darrell G. Jones, the Air Force's deputy chief for personnel, said the body parts were first cremated, then incinerated, and then taken to a landfill by a military contractor. He could not explain why both cremation and incineration were necessary, but likened the process to disposing of medical waste.
Jones also could not estimate how many body parts were handled in this way. "That was the common practice at the time and since then our practices have improved," he said.
An Air Force document shows that the landfill was in King George County, Va. Officials with Waste Management Inc., which operates the landfill, said it was kept in the dark about the origin of the ashes. "We were not specifically made aware of that process by the Air Force," said Lisa Kardell, a spokeswoman for the company.
The Dover mortuary changed its policy in June 2008, Jones said. Since then, the Navy has placed the cremated remains of body parts in urns that are buried at sea.
Asked if it was appropriate or dignified to incinerate troops' body parts and dispose of them in a landfill, Jones declined to answer directly. "We have recognized a much better way of doing things," he said. "Let me be emphatic: I think the current procedures are better."
On Tuesday, the Air Force acknowledged that the mortuary had lost a dead soldier's ankle and an unidentified body part recovered from an air crash; had sawed off a Marine's arm so he would fit in his casket; and had improperly stored and tracked other remains.
The Air Force disciplined three mortuary supervisors after an 18-month investigation, but has not fired any of them, despite calls from lawmakers and veterans' groups for tougher action.
"What happened at Dover AFB exceeds on many levels the nationwide anger that resulted from reports of mistreated wounded at the former Walter Reed Army Medical Center in 2007 and reports of lost or misplaced graves at Arlington National Cemetery," said Richard L. DeNoyer, the national commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. "You only get one chance to return our fallen warriors to their families with all the dignity and respect they deserve from a grateful nation — and that mortuary affairs unit failed."
Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, who earlier had commended the Air Force for the "thoroughness" of its investigation, backed away from that stance Wednesday. His spokesman, George Little, said that Panetta was leaving "open the possibility for further accountability" and that "there is no excuse for this kind of incident to occur."
Under military culture and regulations, the armed services have a sacred obligation to care for fallen troops and their families. All troops killed overseas return to Dover in flag-draped transfer cases and are honored in what the military calls a "dignified transfer" ceremony.
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