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Air Force Admits ‘Gross Mismanagement’ of Soldiers’ Remains

November 9, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Dover Air Force base in Delaware receives America's war dead in solemn ceremonies, but after a year-long investigation, the Air Force acknowledged "gross mismanagement" of some remains within the base's mortuary. Margret Warner discusses the revelations with The Washington Post's Craig Whitlock.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight, stories of dishonor for some who died in war.

Margaret Warner has our report.

MARGARET WARNER: Dover Air Force Base in Delaware receives America’s war dead in solemn ceremony, with top brass and presidents paying their respects.

But now, after a year-long investigation, the Air Force has acknowledged “gross mismanagement” of some remains within the base’s military mortuary, lost body parts in two instances in 2009, fragments of ankle bone and human tissue of servicemen killed in Afghanistan, and the severing of a dead Marine’s arm bone in 2010 to fit him into a dress uniform for viewing without getting the family’s consent.

Still, the Air Force concluded there have been no violations of law or procedure. And Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz yesterday defended the decision to discipline, but not fire the three senior mortuary officials in charge.

GEN. NORTON SCHWARTZ, Air Force chief of staff: This wasn’t a deliberate act, in my personal view and that of the commanders who exercised authority in this case.

MARGARET WARNER: But, separately, the independent Office of Special Counsel criticized the Air Force’s conclusions and disciplinary decisions saying they demonstrated a pattern of “failure to acknowledge culpability for wrongdoing relating to the treatment of remains.”

And Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has ordered a review, and, today, his spokesman said he leaves open the possibility for further accountability.

For more, we’re joined by Craig Whitlock, national security reporter at The Washington Post.

And, Craig, thank you for coming back.

Let’s start with, how did these charges even come to light, even come to be investigated?

CRAIG WHITLOCK, The Washington Post: Hi, Margaret.

The charges came from three whistle-blowers, each of whom works at Dover Air Force Base at the mortuary. These were embalmers and technicians who worked there for a number of years, and they filed complaints with a number of agencies, including the inspector general of the Air Force, with the Department of Defense and with the Office of Special Counsel.

And this happened in about April and May 2009, and that’s what — excuse me — 2010 — and that’s what prompted the investigations. 

MARGARET WARNER: And what is the major point of disagreement here between the Air Force probe and then the Office of Special Counsel, which seems quite a bit harsher.

CRAIG WHITLOCK: It is quite a bit harsher, Margaret.

The Air Force, as you noted earlier, investigated these allegations in detail. And while they did find a pattern of — quote, unquote — “gross mismanagement,” they found that these individual allegations of missing body parts and improperly handled remains were not a violation of specific rules or procedures, and no one had personally broke any rules.

The Office of Special Counsel took strong exception to that. They said this was evidence that the Air Force didn’t take these allegations seriously enough, that they should have disciplined some of these supervisors more severely, including one who they said had been — quote, unquote — “untruthful” to investigators. And the Office of Special Counsel said essentially the Air Force took a very light hand in reacting.

MARGARET WARNER: And that guy you’re talking about, Mr. Keel, was the director of the mortuary.

CRAIG WHITLOCK: That’s correct.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, this seems to be a fast-moving story. What are the latest?

CRAIG WHITLOCK: Well, we’re reporting on our website very shortly, if we haven’t already on my way to the studio, that there were some highly suspect methods for the Air Force mortuary to dispose of some remains at Dover for many years.

We’re going to report and Air Force officials have admitted that between 2003 and 2008, that with some body fragments and tissues and parts recovered from the battlefield, that they just — they cremated them and disposed of them in a landfill in Virginia. They did this for the most part without the families being aware.

And let me be clear. In each of these cases, these were — war is an ugly business, and it’s pretty graphic and in some cases bodies weren’t left intact. And it takes a while to identify all the remains of the body. And in many cases, the families gave the Air Force permission to dispose of any later found body parts in a dignified and appropriate manner. What they didn’t know is that the Air Force would have them created and incinerated, and then taken to a landfill.

MARGARET WARNER: So, the fault here is failure to essentially show the proper respect and not meet the family’s expectations, or what they had told the family would be done with them?

CRAIG WHITLOCK: I think that’s right.

The families were not aware this was going on. Some families had tried for years to get answers of what had happened. And the Air Force was reluctant to be open about it. But, again, let me emphasize that, for the military, giving care and respect and dignity and honor to fallen troops and their families, those who are who are killed in battle, is of the utmost importance in military culture, as well as regulations.

So the idea that these remains could be handled in this manner, whether the lost body parts or ultimately ending up in a landfill, I think is pretty shocking to many people in our armed forces and their families.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, the special counsel was also very critical of the Air Force for its own timetable for notifying the families. What happened there?

CRAIG WHITLOCK: That’s correct.

This investigation took 18 months or so. The Air Force waited until last weekend to notify four families whose service members had body parts that were missing or couldn’t be accounted for. The Air Force has given some shifting explanations for why they waited so long.

First, Gen. Schwartz, the chief of staff, who you heard earlier, said that there were some constraints placed on the Air Force by the Office of Special Counsel that made them wait. Later, he said that it was the Air Force’s judgment that they wanted to give all the information to the families in one fell swoop, instead of partial reports, and that’s why they waited.

The Office of Special Counsel was highly critical of this. They said that they had urged the Air Force for months to notify the families, that they should have been notified right away that there was these discrepancies in what happened to their relatives, their fallen relatives.

MARGARET WARNER: And, briefly, Secretary Panetta has ordered another review. You all have now your findings. Where does this go from here?

CRAIG WHITLOCK: We’re not sure. And I think there’s a lot of questions as to how things were handled at this mortuary and for how many years.

Yesterday, Gen. Schwartz couldn’t rule out that there have been other incidents where body parts were missing or other improprieties. He said he hoped everything had been fixed and that everything was up to snuff now. But we don’t know what happened in prior years or in other cases. And we will have to wait and see what comes out.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, thank you, Craig Whitlock of The Washington Post. Thanks much.