Last month, The Washington Post published an initial report on the practice, focusing on a single instance in which the partial remains of Sgt. 1st Class Scott R. Smith, killed in Iraq in 2006, were sent to a landfill. Now, on Wednesday, the Post reported that such a practice had occurred far more often than the Air Force had acknowledged.
The Air Force runs the mortuary at Dover, Del., the place where the remains of soldiers and other US military personnel are brought from overseas. In some cases, remains have been difficult to identify because of insufficient DNA information. These cases often involve the explosion of roadside bombs in which more than one American is killed.
While the practice of cremating and then disposing of some body parts and other remains ended in 2008, a formal investigation continues. Family members, distraught at the news, had been told that their loved ones’ remains had been handled in a respectful and dignified manner.
“The landfill disposals were never formally authorized under military policies or regulations,” The Washington Post reports. “They also were not disclosed to senior Pentagon officials who conducted a high-level review of cremation policies at the Dover mortuary in 2008, records show.”
“Backtracking on initial information about how it handled the remains of American service members killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Air Force now says the cremated body parts of hundreds of the fallen were burned and dumped in the landfill,” according to CNN. “The Air Force also said that 1,762 body parts were never identified and also were disposed off, first by cremation, then by further incineration and then buried in a landfill.”
Although some Dover personnel have been reprimanded for the mortuary’s past practices, no one was fired. Some lawmakers are pressing for more investigation.
"For years, this has been handled unceremoniously and insensitively and, I would say, dishonorably," Rep. Rush Holt (D) of New Jersey told CNN. “They don't get it. They don't understand the degree of dishonor involved in all of this.”
In response to his query, the Defense Department last month told Representative Rush that exact numbers could not be determined.
"Without individual case-by-case review, the exact number of Service-directed disposition of subsequent remains cannot be determined," the Defense Department wrote to Rush. "It would require a massive effort and time to recall records and research individually."
The subject came up at the Pentagon’s regular press briefing Thursday.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta “is comfortable with the way the Air Force has handled this,” Capt. John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters. Independent investigations had pointed to “gross mismanagement” in the case.
“[Secretary Panetta] is committed obviously to the principle that our fallen heroes and their families deserve the very best in how they are treated,” Pentagon press secretary George Little said at the Thursday briefing. “The secretary feels that the Air Force has been forthcoming with information related to Dover.”
In a similar scandal last year, instances of misidentified and misplaced remains were found at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.