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Report Raises New Concerns About Air Force’s Disposal of Remains

December 8, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
The Washington Post reported Thursday that incinerated partial remains of 274 troops had been taken from Dover Air Force Base in Delaware and disposed of in a landfill in Virginia. Jeffrey Brown discusses the new concerns with The Post's Craig Whitlock, who broke the story.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight, new questions about the disposal of remains of service members killed in action.

The Pentagon responded today to a Washington Post report that incinerated partial remains of 274 troops had been taken from Dover Air Force Base in Delaware and disposed of in a landfill in Virginia.

This afternoon, the Air Force said that the practice was stopped three years ago.

LT. GEN. DARRELL JONES, U.S. Air Force: Prior to 2008, we took the unidentified portions under military escort in a dignified manner to a local funeral home, and they were cremated.

The cremated remains were then, with a military escort, turned over to a contractor for incineration, as was the industry standard. If there was any residual matter, it was handled in accordance with the — the processes at the time.

In 2008, our own inspection, not driven by any outside force, took a look at the process and said, we can do better than that. Here’s a better way to provide dignity and honor to these families and to our fallen heroes. And we developed the retirement-at-sea process using a sea-salt urn for our loved ones.

JEFFREY BROWN: And joining us is Craig Whitlock of The Washington Post. He broke the original story last month and co-wrote today’s follow-up.

Craig, so much bigger than previously known when you first reported on this a month ago. What has happened since that — in that time?

CRAIG WHITLOCK, The Washington Post: Well, Jeff, what happened was, the Air Force initially told us and told the Congress that it would be too difficult for them to go back through their records at Dover Air Force Base to figure out how many service members had their remains disposed of in this way that finally ended up in the landfill.

We pressed them on this as part of our investigation. They have an electronic database there. And after we pressed them for these — this information, they finally did come up with these figures just a couple of days ago that spelled out over a four-year period that there were 274 troops whose remains, part of their remains ended up in the landfill.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, a four-year period — we know when it ended. Do we know when it actually began?

CRAIG WHITLOCK: No, we don’t.

And the Air Force says they don’t know either, Jeff. And they said they — at this point, they don’t have plans to go back and try and find out. They say their current records date to late 2003. We have talked to individuals who say the practice went on prior to that. We have correspondence, email correspondence from mortuary officials to family members indicating that this went back at least to the mid-’90s.

It’s possible — and people in Congress are asking if this went back even further to prior conflicts, to the first Gulf War, or even Vietnam. And we just don’t know.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, you were at the briefing where we heard Gen. Jones just now.

Fill in a little bit about their explanation of how or why this practice was undertaken.

CRAIG WHITLOCK: Another very good question, and I think one that the Air Force has labored to give a clear answer for.

They would first take these remains. These are ones that were either unidentified, that they couldn’t figure out who they belonged to, from catastrophic accidents in the war zone, or they were ones that belonged to individuals whose family members had said, look, if you find any additional remains, we want to you dispose of them appropriately.

They didn’t know, of course, what in fact happened, which was the Air Force would first cremate them, which is acceptable. And then, after that, for reasons they can’t really explain, they mixed them in with medical waste from the mortuary, took them to an incinerator in Baltimore, and then took the leftovers to the landfill.

And they have had a hard time saying why they did this. They said it was industry practice, standard industry practice. But we found, talking to funeral home operators and people in that industry, that that is not the case. They are appalled by this.

JEFFREY BROWN: And they said that family members have said they didn’t want to be notified if more remains were found. But you found that that wasn’t the case in all cases.

CRAIG WHITLOCK: Well, that’s right.

They said they aren’t going to go back and notify these families of these 274 troops what in fact happened. And the reason is, they say these family members, that their wishes were they didn’t want to know if there were additional remains found.

But, as you said, we have interviewed a woman, Gari-Lynn Smith from New Jersey, who is a war widow of a soldier who was killed in Iraq. And she spent four years trying to find out what had happened.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Gen. Jones said that the military has a new practice in 2008 — at sea.

CRAIG WHITLOCK: That’s right. Since then, they have been holding the ashes to retire them at sea. They started that this year.

JEFFREY BROWN: Oh, so — so, then, that’s since 2008?

CRAIG WHITLOCK: Yes, that is something else that has been a little hard for them to explain. They stopped the landfill practice in 2008, but they didn’t actually begin the land — the burial at sea until early this year.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, there was immediate criticism, as there has been since your article first came out a month ago. It continues, from Congress, among other — and other places, right?

CRAIG WHITLOCK: Well, that’s right.

The House Committee on Oversight — Government Oversight and Reform, is investigating not only this, but all burial practices by the military dating back 10 years. There’s also an internal Pentagon investigation. So I think this will go on for some time.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what might be the next step?

CRAIG WHITLOCK: Well, I think we will see what Congress does. I don’t think the Air Force has anything planned.

There is a review right now of three supervisors at the Dover Air Force Base that Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has ordered to determine whether appropriate discipline has been handed out in this case and other problems at the mortuary. And I think we will find that out in the next few weeks.

JEFFREY BROWN: Secretary Panetta said today he was satisfied. Now, is there — he has ordered a full review, I think, of procedures at Dover. Where does all that stand?

CRAIG WHITLOCK: He has appointed a commission headed by retired Army Gen. John Abizaid, as well as public health experts, to take a look at the current mortuary operations.

It’s a little unclear if they are going to go back, as we discussed, how far this landfill disposal and other problems went. It’s a little unclear if that is going to be the scope, or they’re just going to check how things work now.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Craig Whitlock of The Washington Post, thanks so much.

CRAIG WHITLOCK: You’re welcome.