Air Force mortuary officials now retire subsequently identified portions of fallen service members' remains at sea.
Dec. 9, 2011—The Air Force leadership "immediately took steps to better the process" once it learned in 2008 that its military mortuary at Dover AFB, Del., would sometimes dispose of small, subsequently identified portions of fallen service members' remains by placing them in a landfill, said Lt. Gen. Darrell Jones, deputy chief of staff for manpower, personnel, and services, Thursday.
"The director of the Dover Port Mortuary reviewed the process and recommended to the Central Joint Mortuary Affairs board that the services implement a retirement at sea option as a more fitting option for subsequently identified portions of remains where the family chose not to be notified or take possession," Jones told reporters Thursday during a briefing in the Pentagon.
Jones said prior to 2008, these portions of remains—usually small pieces of tissue and bone fragments—were escorted to a funeral home for cremation. They were then turned over to a contractor for incineration, and any residual remains were disposed of according to industry standards, which could mean disposition in a Virginia landfill.
Jones spoke to the media the day after the Washington Post reported that portions of "subsequently identified remains" from 274 US troops were disposed of in a landfill from 2003 until the Air Force stopped the practice in 2008.
The newspaper studied an electronic database from the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations Center at Dover and found "976 fragments from 274 military personnel were cremated, incinerated, and taken to the landfill" during that timeframe. Dover serves as the point of entry for service members who are killed or die overseas.
Although the Air Force stopped the practice in 2008, Jones said the service did not inform the family members of those 274 deceased service members because all of the families had signed a form stating that they did not want to be notified if any residual remains were identified.
"Our concern was that we didn't want to do anything to reopen the wounds of families who had already come to closure," he said.
The Air Force made the information on the mortuary operations public following a year-long investigation, announced last month, of the Dover center, during which the Air Force inspector general found that the service had mishandled the remains of three service members.
Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee on Nov. 10, following the release of the findings from that investigation, that the Air Force had followed an "authorized method of dealing with remains, particularly those that are separated from the larger portion of remains returned to the family."
Today, Jones explained, subsequently identified portions of remains are cremated, placed in sea-salt urns, and held until Dover mortuary officials can "coordinate with the Navy for the appropriate time to be taken out to sea."
The Navy has retired 14 urns at sea since 2008, said Jones. He described the retirement as a "solemn ceremony" carried out on a Navy ship, but said it's typically less formal than a "burial at sea," which tends to be more like a funeral.
The Mortuary Affairs Operations Center now mans an around-the-clock hotline that the Air Force established after the release of the IG's investigation report. The hotline is there to answer questions or address concerns from family members of fallen service members. Since it opened on Nov. 8, it has received nine calls, said Jones.
"It causes us great pain to think we have brought suffering to a family. My father wore the uniform. I wear the uniform. My son wears the uniform," said Jones. "We know more than anyone else the pain that a conflict causes when you lose a loved one. If we have done anything to add to that pain, you bet we're going to apologize. We'll tell them everything we know. That's the purpose of the hotline."
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