WASHINGTON — The Dover Air Force Base mortuary for years disposed of portions of troops’ remains by cremating them and dumping the ashes in a Virginia landfill, a practice that officials have since abandoned in favor of burial at sea.
The Dover mortuary, the main point of entry for America’s war dead and the target of federal investigations for alleged mishandling of remains, engaged in the practice from 2003 to 2008, according to Air Force officials. The manner of disposal was not disclosed to relatives of fallen service members.
Air Force officials acknowledged the practice Wednesday in response to inquiries from The Washington Post. They said the procedure was limited to fragments or portions of body parts that were unable to be identified at first or were later recovered from the battlefield, and which family members had said could be disposed of by the military.
Lt. Gen. Darrell Jones, the Air Force’s deputy chief for personnel, said the body parts were first cremated, then incinerated, and then taken to a landfill by a military contractor. He likened the procedure to the disposal of medical waste.
Jones also could not estimate how many body parts were handled in this way. “That was the common practice at the time, and since then our practices have improved,” he said.
Gari-Lynn Smith, portions of whose husband’s remains were disposed of in the landfill after his 2006 death in Iraq, said she was “appalled and disgusted” by the way the Air Force had acted. She learned of the landfill burial earlier this spring in a letter from a senior official at the Dover mortuary.
“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,” Smith said. “That was completely shattered for me when I was told that he was thrown in the trash.”
An Air Force document shows that the landfill is in King George County, Va. Officials with Waste Management, which operates the landfill, said the company was not informed about the origin of the ashes. “We were not specifically made aware of that process by the Air Force,” said Lisa Kardell, a spokeswoman for the company.
The Dover mortuary changed its policy in June 2008, Jones said. Since then, the Navy has placed the cremated remains of body parts in urns that are buried at sea.
Asked if it was appropriate or dignified to incinerate troops’ body parts and dispose of them in a landfill, Jones declined to answer directly. “We have recognized a much better way of doing things,” he said. “Let me be emphatic: I think the current procedures are better.”
The disclosure of military landfill burials comes in the aftermath of multiple federal investigations that documented “gross mismanagement” at the Dover Air Force Base, which receives the remains of all service members killed in action in Afghanistan, Iraq or elsewhere overseas.
On Tuesday, the Air Force acknowledged that the mortuary had lost a dead soldier’s ankle and an unidentified body part recovered from an air crash, had sawed off a Marine’s arm so his body would fit in his casket, and had improperly stored and tracked other remains.
The Air Force disciplined three mortuary supervisors after an 18-month investigation, but has not fired any of them, despite calls from lawmakers and veterans’ groups for tougher action.
“What happened at Dover AFB exceeds on many levels the nationwide anger that resulted from reports of mistreated wounded at the former Walter Reed Army Medical Center in 2007 and reports of lost or misplaced graves at Arlington National Cemetery,” said Richard DeNoyer, the national commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. “You only get one chance to return our fallen warriors to their families with all the dignity and respect they deserve from a grateful nation, and that mortuary affairs unit failed.”
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Tuesday commended the Air Force for the “thoroughness” of its investigation. His spokesman, George Little, said Wednesday that Panetta was leaving “open the possibility for further accountability” and that “there is no excuse for this kind of incident to occur.”
Under military culture and regulations, the armed services have a special obligation to care for fallen troops and their families. All troops killed overseas return to Dover in flag-draped transfer cases and are honored in what the military calls a “dignified transfer” ceremony.
Smith, whose husband was killed in Iraq, spent more than four years trying to find out what happened to his remaining body parts before she learned of the landfill disposal. Sgt. First Class Scott Smith served more than 16 years in the Army where he volunteered for dangerous duty defusing and destroying bombs in Iraq.
He was was killed when stepped on a pressure plate that triggered a buried bomb.
Initially, Smith said she was led to believe that his entire body was returned for the funeral. When Dover officials told Smith that her husband’s body was too badly mangled for an open-casket funeral, she said she became worried that some of his remains had not been buried with the casket.
“I knew he was blown up and had amputated limbs, but I was not getting a straight answer from the Air Force about what had happened to his body,” Smith said.
She received her husband’s autopsy report in 2007 and learned that some remains had not been found in time to include in the casket.
Shortly after Smith’s death, his parents had filled out a Defense Department form giving the Air Force permission to “make appropriate disposition” of any partial remains discovered after the body was buried, according to Pentagon records.
Gari-Lynn Smith said she believed that Dover officials would treat the remains with respect. The deceased soldier’s parents declined to comment.
In April, Trevor Dean, a senior official at the Dover mortuary, informed her in a letter that some of her husband’s body parts were cremated and dumped in a landfill in King George County. In the letter, Dean listed her husband’s first name incorrectly, an oversight that Smith saw as yet another sign of disregard for her spouse.
“This has been nothing but a nightmare,” she said.
Dean was formerly the top civilian deputy at the mortuary. The Air Force said he received a lower pay grade and voluntarily accepted a transfer to a lesser position in September as a result of separate allegations of mishandling of remains. He still works at Dover.
In an email Wednesday, Dean declined to comment about the Smith case or about the landfill practices. “We are pleased with the positive change in the program,” he said in reference to reforms the Air Force says it has implemented at the mortuary.
Relatives of other service members whose remains were mishandled at Dover said Wednesday that they were shocked to learn of the errors.
Stan McDowell, the father of Capt. Mark McDowell, who died in an F-15E fighter jet crash in Afghanistan in July 2009, said the Air Force informed him Saturday that it couldn’t account for a 4-inch piece of flesh that may have belonged to his son.
“They were very apologetic, and it was all heartfelt,” Stan McDowell said. “We know Mark was a Christian, and that he’s in heaven. So we look at it like, ok, so maybe there are some remains that did not end up in his burial site. . . .That’s not really a concern to us. And the reason is: We know Mark is separated from his body, and that he’s in heaven.”
The Air Force said it was uncertain whether the missing piece of flesh belonged to McDowell or his friend, Air Force Capt. Thomas Gramith, who was killed in the same jet crash. The other remains of the two airmen are buried together, under the same headstone, at Arlington National Cemetery.
Patricia O’Kane-Trombley, Gramith’s mother, said she was assured by the Air Force’s promises to ensure that something like this never happens again. “I don’t like mix-ups. Don’t get me wrong,” she said. “If Tom were here, he’d say, ‘What can we do to make this better?’ ”
Washington Post writer Christian Davenport and researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.