WASHINGTON — The mishandling of remains at Dover Port Mortuary — which included dumping in a landfill the incinerated remains of some 9/11 victims — are not shocking given the lack of command authority and structure at the facility, retired Army Gen. John Abizaid said Tuesday.
Abizaid headed a subcommittee of the Defense Health Board charged with examining the mortuary’s policies and procedures. The subcommittee, which released its report Tuesday, was formed after an Air Force Inspector General report last fall, responding to whistleblowers’ complaints, found several incidents in which servicemembers’ remains were being handled improperly at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.
Among the initial findings: body parts packaged in plastic bags were mislabeled and lost; cremated remains were thrown in a Virginia landfill; and one fallen Marine’s mangled arm was sawed off, without family notification, so the body would fit in the casket.
Background information provided with the subcommittee’s report indicated that unidentifiable remains from the 9/11 Pentagon attack and the crash site in Shanksville, Pa., were cremated, sealed in containers and given to a biomedical waste disposal contractor. The contractor incinerated those containers and dumped the residual material in a landfill, according to the report.
The subcommittee made 20 recommendations to address problems with command, oversight, policy, operations and workflow. It did not look at any of the disciplinary actions related to the complaints.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said in a statement that he has appointed Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey to work with service leaders to implement the recommendations.
“My continuing promise to all the families of our fallen heroes is that every step will be taken to protect the honor and respect that their loved ones richly deserve,” Panetta said. “Having been to Dover, I consider this a sacred place with a sacred responsibility.”
While the Air Force and the Department of Defense have made strides to fix many of the underlying issues since the first allegations, Abizaid said, problems remain.
“These problems need to be corrected right away,” Abizaid said.
Abizaid focused mainly on the command structure and lack of oversight as the source of the problems, but the report also zeroed in on training, which the subcommittee called “insufficient across mortuary affairs.”
No special training is required for the commander of Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations, and training for the servicemembers and others who work with families and the mortuary varies by service. Additionally, there are no policies on who is qualified to perform certain embalming and restoration functions.
The subcommittee recommends increasing and standardizing training for service liaisons, case managers and casualty assistance officers across the services, and giving special training to the commander.
The command should create a plan for receiving large numbers of casualties in a short period of time, because the mortuary is not prepared to handle large numbers of remains arriving at once — whether from natural disaster or a large-scale military event.
To address communications failures, the subcommittee recommends creating standardized forms for use by all services and giving all available information to the person working with the family of the deceased during the initial notification.
And while the mortuary has a crematory it can use for some remains, the subcommittee recommended the mortuary not perform full-body cremations.
“We think that it’s a bad idea for the Department of Defense to be in the cremation business,” Abizaid said.
Secretary of the Air Force Michael Donley lauded the whistleblowers who brought the wrongdoing to light in this case.
“The individuals who reported the allegations in this matter performed an important service to the Air Force and the nation,” and they continue their work at Dover, Donley said.
A report on reprisals and disciplinary action taken against the whistleblowers, brought to the Air Force’s attention by an Office of Special Counsel report, is expected in March.
Donley also said Tuesday he was not previously aware that some remains of 9/11 victims had been thrown in a landfill, but did not directly address the incident.
“We certainly expressed our regret for the additional grief caused to families of loved ones whose remains were handled in perhaps a less-than-ideal or by some measures even an inappropriate standard prior to 2008,” he said.