Investigating Mortuary Affairs
A year-long investigation by the Air Force Inspector General revealed that Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations at Dover AFB, Del., failed to properly account for the remains of three service members killed on active duty.
Nov. 8, 2011— The Air Force Inspector General has completed a year-long investigation into the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations based at Dover AFB, Del., after multiple whistleblowers reported several incidents of misconduct in the handling of remains of some service members killed on active duty.
USAF began the investigation in June 2010 at the behest of the US Office of Special Counsel, which confirmed in a Tuesday release that "four disclosures by multiple whistleblowers" pointed to "serious misconduct." OSC acknowledged that USAF has made changes at the mortuary, but it maintained that USAF has "failed to admit wrongdoing."
According to OSC, "in two separate incidents, three body parts of service members killed on active duty were lost by the Port Mortuary."
In another incident, OSC said that "a US Marine was dismembered with a saw in order to make the body fit inside a military uniform."
The OSC also reported five incidences where fetal remains belonging to military families were shipped to Dover inside plastic pails that were then placed in used cardboard boxes. In addition, the whistleblowers alleged that management failed to inform the staff that a corpse may have been infected with contagious tuberculosis.
"The mortuary for the United States military should boast the best conditions and best practices of any mortuary," said Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner in the OSC release. "These events are deeply troubling, as is the Air Force's failure to acknowledge culpability."
Although an Air Force spokeswoman based at the Pentagon said the IG investigation will not be released to the public and referred the Daily Report to the OSC report instead, the Pentagon on Tuesday did release a summary of the IG's findings. The release noted that the investigation found no evidence that remains were intentionally mishandled; however, it did acknowledge that the "mortuary staff failed to maintain accountability while processing portions of remains for three service members."
The service has implemented, according to the Pentagon release, "corrective action" against three senior mortuary officials. However, OSC claims USAF "has not taken sufficient disciplinary action against the officials responsible for wrongdoing." The Associated Press reported via Yahoo News that none of the three officers were fired and two still work at Dover, though not in supervisory jobs.
The Pentagon release quoted Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz, saying the investigation found, "The mission was always conducted with reverence, dignity, honor, and respect for all served through the facility." However, he added, "We can, and will do better." As a result of the investigation, Schwartz said DOD's ability to "care for our fallen warriors is now stronger."
For example, the Air Force is now required to receive family members' permission before remains are significantly altered. The OSC acknowledged that USAF has implemented extensive new procedures intended to improve the handling and accountability of remains.
"It is the AFMAO staff's mission and obligation to fulfill the nation's commitment to caring for our fallen service members while also serving and supporting the families of these heroes," Air Force Secretary Michael Donley said in the Pentagon release. "The employees who brought forth their concerns gave the Air Force an opportunity to make the operation of AFMAO better and stronger. Their initiative allowed us to correct procedures and make long-term improvements to management of Air Force mortuary operations."
At the Air Force's request, according to the Pentagon news release, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has directed an independent assessment of the Port Mortuary's current overall operations.
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