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The Air Force's 'appalling' mishandling of America's war dead
The remains of fallen soldiers were lost, dumped in a landfill, and in one case, dismembered. A guide to the disturbing revelations
 
A U.S. military funeral in Arlington, Va.: The main military mortuary in Delaware has allegedly lost body parts, and worse, before transferring the dead soldiers to their families.
A U.S. military funeral in Arlington, Va.: The main military mortuary in Delaware has allegedly lost body parts, and worse, before transferring the dead soldiers to their families.
Richard T. Nowitz/Corbis

An 18-month Air Force investigation has concluded that senior officials at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware displayed "gross mismanagement" in their handling of the remains of fallen servicemen and women. The Delaware base is where all of the nation's war dead are received, identified, and autopsied before being transferred to families, including 4,000 servicemen and women from 2008 to 2010. "What happened at Dover AFB exceeds on many levels... 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," says Veterans of Foreign Wars's national commander Richard L. DeNoyer. Here's what you should know:

What exactly is alleged?
Three civilian employees at the Dover Port Mortuary blew the whistle, alleging 14 "gruesome failures at the facility." The allegations include multiple instances of lost body parts, and one case in which mortuary workers cut off the arm of a dead Marine (without consulting his family) so that he could fit in the coffin. According to The Washington Post, the Dover mortuary also allegedly disposed of remains by cremating them and then dumping the ashes in a landfill. Following the complaints, the Air Force launched a lengthy investigation, the findings of which were reported this week.

What did the Air Force discover?
An ankle fragment of a soldier killed in a blast in Afghanistan was lost. A large piece of flesh from a pilot who died in a fighter jet crash in Afghanistan went missing. The loss of two body parts makes for a 99.9 percent success rate, the report says, given how many remains come through Dover. But "the success rate for families of the deceased in the two individual cases is zero percent." As for the soldier whose arm was cut off, the Air Force says mortuary officials should have told Air Force brass about the matter, but that the family's permission wasn't required. Officials admit that they dumped unidentifiable body parts in a landfill from 2003 to 2008. "That was the common practice at the time, and since then our practices have improved," says Lt. Gen. Darrell G. Jones. The widow of a serviceman who died in Iraq in 2006 recently learned that her husband's remains had ended up in a landfill. She is "appalled and disgusted."

Did anyone lose their job over this scandal?
The three senior officials were disciplined, but are still employed. The former commander of the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations Center, Robert H. Edmondson, who left the post last year as part of standard rotation, was given a letter of reprimand. His former deputy, Trevor Dean, and the former mortuary director, Quinton R. Keel, were both demoted to lower ranking jobs outside of the mortuary.

Is anyone else investigating this?
Yes. The Office of Special Counsel, an independent agency that handles complaints within the federal government, undertook its own investigation, and criticized the Air Force's probe as inadequate. The agency's head, Carolyn N. Lerner, says Dean and Keel should have been fired and retaining them "sends an inappropriate message to the workforce." Furthermore, the special counsel's report reads: "While the Air Force report reflects a willingness to find paperwork violations and errors... the findings stop short of accepting accountability for failing to handle remains with the requisite 'reverence, care and dignity befitting them and the circumstances.'"

What now?
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are calling for congressional action. In a statement Wednesday, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said that Congress "will work with the Department of Defense to strengthen oversight and management of the Dover mortuary." Calling the situation "appalling," Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said "Congress should, and must, act immediately to understand how this could have possibly happened and to make sure those responsible are held accountable."

Sources: Associated Press, New York Times, Washington Post (2)

 

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