Moral Low Ground

War & Peace

Air Force Dumped Remains of U.S. War Dead in Landfill

For years, the U.S. Air Force mortuary on the base that is the main point of entry for America’s war dead disposed of troops’ remains by cremating them and tossing their ashes on a trash heap in Virginia.

According to the Washington Post, the practice, which has been discontinued in favor of at-sea burials, took place at the Dover Air Force Base mortuary in Delaware from 2003-2008. Federal investigators have found the mortuary guilty of “gross mismanagement” and mishandling troops’ remains. The mortuary, which handles all remains of troops who’ve died overseas, including in the War on Terror, has admitted to losing troops’ body parts as well as mutilating the corpses of fallen warriors: a Marine’s arm was sawed off so his body would fit in a casket, without relatives’ permission. Other remains were improperly stored.

The shocking manner in which the remains were disposed of was not disclosed to the deceased troops’ relatives.

Lt. Gen. Darrell G. Jones, Air Force deputy chief for personnel, likened the process to the disposal of medical waste and told the Post that it “was the common practice at the time.”

Gari-Lynn Smith, whose husband, Sgt. 1st Class Scott R. Smith was a 16-year Army veteran who volunteered to defuse and destroy bombs in Iraq, was killed by a buried bomb in 2006. She was falsely led to believe that Scott’s entire body was returned for burial. Knowing that the nature of his death meant a closed-casket funeral, Smith grew concerned about some of his remains.

“I knew he was blown up and had amputated limbs, but I was not getting a straight answer from the Air Force,” she told the Post. After reviewing his autopsy report in 2007, Smith learned that some of her husband’s remains were missing. A letter from the mortuary confirmed her worst fears.

“My only peace of mind in losing my husband was that he was taken to Dover and that we was handled with dignity, love and respect,” she told the Post. “That was completely shattered for me when I was told that he was thrown in the trash.”

Smith told the Post that she was “appalled and disgusted” by the way the Air Force had acted.

Gen. Jones says the Navy now placed the remains of cremated troops in urns and buried them at sea.

“We have recognized a much better way of doing things,” he told the Post. “Let me be emphatic: I think the current procedures are better.”

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta commended the Air Force for its “thorough” investigation. His spokesman added that officials responsible for the debacle may be subject to “further accountability.”

“There is no excuse for this kind of incident to occur,” he said.

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