WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The man who the Pentagon announced this week would lead a review to prevent more mishaps at the U.S. military’s main mortuary is stepping down from the job, in a surprise setback.
Former Surgeon General Richard Carmona announced on Thursday a bid to run in the Democratic Senate primary in Arizona — plans that U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta was apparently unaware of when he named Carmona to the panel on Tuesday.
The panel will aim to ensure the mortuary at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware is handling the remains of war dead appropriately, after revelations this week it lost track of body parts and even severed a limb of a fallen Marine without his family’s permission.
Carmona, the Pentagon said, informed the Defense Department on Friday morning he would step aside. Panetta agreed with the decision, it said.
“It’s clear that he wouldn’t be able to run a serious investigation into Dover and a political campaign at the same time,” a senior defense official told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.
One of the panel’s other members was expected to take his place. The panel also includes a forensic pathologist, a specialist in funeral service education and a former congressman.
Panetta had presented Carmona’s role on the panel as a way to help guarantee an end to problems at the Dover mortuary, which also used to dispose of the ashes of some troops’ partial remains in a landfill. That practice was abandoned in 2008.
“None of us will be satisfied until we have proven to the families of our fallen heroes that we have taken every step possible to protect the honor and dignity that their loved ones richly deserve,” Panetta told reporters on Thursday, the same day Carmona announced his bid for elected office.
“That’s why I’ve directed, at the request of the Air Force, an independent review of overall current operations ... Vice Admiral Dr. Richard Carmona ... along with a distinguished panel, will conduct that review,” he said.
U.S. media reports indicate Carmona was known to be considering a bid for office. It was not immediately clear why Panetta was not made aware of Carmona’s intentions earlier.
Carmona’s campaign said he stepped down “to avoid the opportunity for the appearance of partisanship,” according to portions of a statement published by local media.
The revelations at Dover have added to questions about treatment of America’s fallen troops a year after a scandal broke at Arlington National Cemetery over the misidentification of remains.
Panetta said on Thursday he ordered the Air Force to take a second look at punishment doled out over the Dover affair, amid questions in Congress about its decision to discipline — and not fire — those involved.
Reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by Peter Cooney