WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Investigators revealed on Tuesday that the military's main mortuary mishandled remains of war dead, losing track of body parts twice and wrongfully removing a limb of a Marine.
The Air Force investigation into the mortuary at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware is likely to add to questions about treatment of America's fallen troops a year after a scandal broke at Arlington National Cemetery over the mishandling and misidentification of remains.
In a letter to President Barack Obama, the chief of the U.S. Office of Special Counsel -- which reviewed the probe -- lambasted the Air Force for a "failure to acknowledge culpability." It also criticized it for waiting too long to notify families of the fallen troops involved.
Air Force Chief of Staff General Norton Schwartz, while accepting blame on behalf of his service, rejected that criticism. He also defended a decision not to fire anyone over the affair and noted that disciplinary action was taken against one military officer and two civilians.
"You should have no doubt about how seriously we took the allegations," Schwartz told a news briefing at the Pentagon.
Asked whether anyone might still be dismissed upon further review, Schwartz responded: "While their performance did not meet standards, this was not a deliberate act."
The OSC, however, alleged there was a "pattern of negligence, misconduct and dishonesty" and questioned the message sent by keeping employees on the payroll.
It also noted that the mortuary director at the center of the allegations fired one of the whistle-blowers, was accused of retaliating against the other two and fired a mortuary inspector who cooperated with the investigation.
Dover is hallowed ground for the U.S. military as the main entry point for returning American war dead. Schwartz commended its employees, civilian and military for their usually careful handling of remains of more than 6,300 Americans since 2003.
"Nonetheless, this is one area where the standard of performance is perfection," Schwartz said.
The Air Force investigation centered on events at Dover between 2008 and 2010 and turned up only a handful of cases of mishandled remains. Schwartz acknowledged he could not certify with certainty "that prior performance met our standard of perfection," suggesting other mishaps were possible.
In one case disclosed in the investigation, mortuary staff severed a Marine's left arm because they were unable to fit the limb into his uniform -- something they needed the family's permission to do. In other instances, the mortuary lost track of the partial remains of Army and Air Force service members.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said he was deeply disturbed to learn about "questions involving the possibilities" of mishandled remains and said he supported the investigation's findings. He commended the Air Force for what he said was a thorough response to the allegations.
"Let me make very clear to the families of our fallen heroes that every step will be taken to protect the honor and dignity that their loved ones richly deserve," Panetta said in a statement.
He announced an independent review of overall current operations at the Dover Port Mortuary, which will be led by former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Richard Carmona.
Editing by Philip Barbara