Air Force mishandled remains of war dead, probe finds
Federal investigators said Tuesday they uncovered “gross mismanagement” at the Dover Air Force Base mortuary that cares for America’s war dead after whistleblowers reported horror stories of lost body parts, shoddy inventory controls and lax supervision.
The former mortuary commander and two other senior officials have been disciplined — but not fired — in response to separate investigations conducted by the Air Force Inspector General, the Secretary of the Air Force and the Office of Special Counsel, an independent federal agency that also received the whistleblower complaints.
The grisly findings at Dover echo a similar scandal at another hallowed repository for the military’s dead, Arlington National Cemetery. An Army investigation last year documented cases of misidentified remains at Arlington, dug-up urns that had been dumped in a dirt pile and botched contracts worth millions of dollars. The Army Criminal Investigation Command and the FBI are now conducting a criminal probe there.
The sloppy handling of troops’ remains at Dover and Arlington painfully undercuts what the military has long borne as a sacred obligation: to treat its fallen members and their families with utmost levels of dignity and honor.
“The ultimate requirement here is to fulfill our professional and moral obligation to ensure that our fallen are treated with the reverence and respect they deserve,” said Gen. Norton Schwartz, the Air Force Chief of staff.
Three civilian whistleblowers who work in the mortuary filed complaints last year alleging 14 specific instances of wrongdoing by their supervisors, from endangering public health to losing a dead soldier’s ankle to sawing off a deceased Marine’s arm bone without informing his family.
The whistleblowers also complained that the Dover mortuary permitted an Army hospital in Germany to ship fetal remains in re-used cardboard boxes back to the United States for burial instead of in more-dignified aluminum transfer cases.
The Air Force Inspector General confirmed many of the basic facts in the complaints and documented a pattern of troubles at Dover. But the inspector general did not uphold the 14 accusations filed against three senior mortuary officials, concluding that there was not enough evidence to show that they had personally broken rules or regulations. The Air Force also found no evidence of criminal wrongdoing.
The Office of Special Counsel, in a blistering response Tuesday to the Air Force’s review, ripped the service for not taking the allegations more seriously and for not punishing senior mortuary officials more harshly.
Carolyn N. Lerner, the agency’s chief, said in a letter to Air Force Secretary Michael Donley that “several of the Air Force’s findings are not supported by the evidence and thus do not appear reasonable.” She also noted “a pattern of the Air Force’s failure to acknowledge culpability for wrongdoing” and that its findings “stop just short of accepting accountability.”
Contrary to the Air Force’s assertions that the whistleblowers did not suffer reprisals, Lerner said one of them was terminated abruptly in September 2010 along with a mortuary inspector who also cooperated in the investigation. They were both rehired after the Office of Special Counsel intervened