WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The chief of the Air Force was questioned by lawmakers Thursday over revelations the military’s main mortuary lost track of body parts of war dead and even dumped ashes in a landfill without telling families.
Air Force Chief of Staff General Norton Schwartz tried to reassure members of the Senate Armed Services Committee that past mistakes had been corrected and again defended a decision not to fire anyone who worked at the mortuary at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.
One military officer and two civilians received disciplinary action, steps that investigators at the U.S. Office of Special Counsel said in a letter to President Barack Obama did not go far enough.
“Clearly (there) were unacceptable mistakes made. Whether they constitute wrongdoing is another matter entirely,” Schwartz told a Senate hearing, called to discuss an unrelated matter involving the U.S. National Guard.
There revelations about Dover have come in two stages this week, as Americans prepare to honor military service Friday, Veterans’ Day.
The first came with the disclosure Tuesday of a U.S. investigation that the Dover mortuary lost track of body parts twice and even wrongfully removed a limb of a Marine.
Schwartz addressed another controversial practice, since abandoned, at Thursday’s hearing: body parts of war dead had been cremated, incinerated and then dumped in a landfill until 2008. This happened in cases where residual remains were found after families received the bodies of their loved ones.
An Air Force official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters that families had granted the military authorization to deal with any residual remains, but acknowledged they had not been made aware those remains would end up in a landfill.
“I‘m deeply troubled by the reports about what’s happened at the mortuary at the Dover Air Force Base. And I‘m sure you would agree with me, this is outrageous that remains of our soldiers would be put in a landfill,” said Senator Kelly Ayotte.
The Washington Post, which first reported those details, quoted one widow saying she was “appalled and disgusted” to learn what happened to her husband’s remains in a letter from the Air Force earlier this year. He died in Iraq in 2006.
“My only peace of mind in losing my husband was that he was taken to Dover and that he was handled with dignity, love, respect and honor,” Gari-Lynn Smith told the Post. “That was completely shattered for me when I was told that he was thrown in the trash.”
Schwartz said residual remains have been buried at sea, according to military custom, since 2008.
“In 2008, the Air Force came to the conclusion that that was not the best way to deal with those remains,” he said.
The revelations at Dover are likely to add to questions about treatment of America’s fallen troops a year after a scandal broke at Arlington National Cemetery over the misidentification of remains.
“What happened at Arlington, nobody was intentionally mismarking graves,” Senator Claire McCaskill said, as she called for greater accountability in the incidents at Dover as well as an independent probe of the Air Force’s own investigation.
Dover is hallowed ground for the U.S. military as the main entry point for returning American war dead from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Although U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has so far commended the Air Force, the Pentagon has also not ruled out further “accountability” should that be required.
Panetta Tuesday also 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 Jackie Frank