WASHINGTON — A New Jersey congressman wrote directly to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta two months ago to raise questions about the Dover Air Force Base mortuary’s longtime practice of dumping troops’ cremated body parts in a landfill, but says he never received a reply.
The congressman’s letter raises questions about when Panetta learned that the mortuary disposed of cremated portions of remains at the King George County, Va., landfill between 2003 and 2008. His spokesman, George Little, said Panetta was first briefed on the issue Wednesday.
Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., acting on behalf of a constituent whose husband was killed in Iraq and whose remains were handled by the Dover mortuary, said he sent a letter to Panetta on Sept. 16 “seeking clear and definitive answers” about the mortuary’s landfill practices. Holt said he had raised the issue a few months earlier with the Pentagon’s legislative affairs office but was “frustrated by a failure” to get a full response.
Little said that Panetta’s office had received Holt’s Sept. 16 correspondence and that staffers “have been working to collect the information required to answer the questions in the Congressman’s letter. We will, of course, provide a thorough response as promptly as possible.”
At a news conference Thursday Panetta said that, while he had been kept informed about a broader federal investigation into problems at the Dover mortuary, he had been unaware of the landfill issue until the Post first reported on it Wednesday.
“I did not know that, frankly,” he said.
Panetta added that he hoped an independent panel he appointed this week to review overall operations at the troubled mortuary will “also look into that situation.”
“I think that it happened back in the past,” added Panetta, who took office July 1. “I know they’ve changed that procedure now, but nevertheless, it’s something we should look at.”
The Air Force said they ended the landfill dumping in 2008 and that the ashes are now buried at sea in ceremonies overseen by the Navy.
Air Force officials have said the landfill dumping 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.
They said the body parts were cremated, then incinerated, and then taken to the landfill by a military contractor. The manner of disposal was not disclosed to relatives of fallen service members.
In his Sept. 16 letter to Panetta, Holt asked why the cremated portions of remains were trucked to the landfill and not interred at Arlington National Cemetery. He also asked whether the human remains had been mixed with incinerated medical waste, and sought information on which military contractors carried out the practice.
As of Thursday, he said he still hadn’t received answers from Panetta’s office.
Holt said he was acting on behalf of Gari-Lynn Smith, a constituent whose husband, Army Sgt. 1st Class Scott Smith, was killed by a buried bomb in Iraq in 2006.
In 2007, Gari-Lynn Smith received her husband’s autopsy report and learned that some remains had not been found in time to include in his casket.
She spent the next four years trying to find out what happened to the remaining body parts before a Dover mortuary official notified her in April that they had been cremated and taken to the landfill. “I was told that he was thrown in the trash,” she told the Post.
Holt said Panetta’s legislative affairs staff confirmed to him in June that the landfill dumping had occurred between 2003 and 2008. Though they did not give details, they wrote to Holt that the practice ended as part of “a process improvement initiative and not the result of complaints or findings of non-compliance.”
In a statement, Holt disputed that assertion. “It is now clear to me that real issues did and may still exist, complaints were made and non-compliance was an all too common occurrence at Dover.”
In addition, Holt criticized the Pentagon for not informing him that — at the time of his inquiries last summer — that the Air Force was simultaneously conducting a separate investigation into the Dover mortuary.
The results of that 18-month investigation were made public Tuesday, when federal investigators said they had documented “gross mismanagement” after whistleblowers complained about lost body parts, shoddy inventory controls and lax supervision.
Panetta has said he was fully briefed about the probe as soon as he took office in July. That investigation, however, did not examine the mortuary’s landfill-dumping.
The scandal has caused an uproar among veterans’ groups and lawmakers.
Holt said he has written to the House Armed Services Committee to hold “immediate” hearings “so we can better understand the scope of the problem at Dover and take quick action to remedy any deficiencies in the handling of the remains of those who have given their lives in defense of our country.”