It was after dusk one evening this month when the Marine casualty assistance officer knocked on the door of the home of Kathy and William Angus in Thonotosassa, Fla. The Marine was bearing bad news. Again.
The last time, a similar knock from the same Marine had signaled a death knell. Their son, Sgt. Daniel Angus, 28, married and daddy to a little girl, had been blown apart by a bomb in Afghanistan. But that was almost two years ago. What did this solemn Marine standing outside want now?
The military, it turned out, had kept a painful secret. Before the funeral, while embalmers were preparing what was left of Angus’s shattered body at the Dover Air Force Base mortuary, they had trouble fitting him into a dress uniform. The heat of the explosion had fused his upper left arm bone at an awkward angle. Without asking the parents’ permission, the embalmers sawed it off, pinning a sleeve over the stump.
The Anguses were even more stunned, said a Tampa, Fla., lawyer representing them, to hear that the Air Force had concluded that the mortuary had done nothing wrong. A mortuary supervisor had insisted the family had wanted to see their fallen Marine in uniform one last time, and this was the only way to make it happen.
Not so, according to the lawyer for the Anguses, Mark O’Brien, conveying the first public comments from the family. They said the mortuary had ignored their stated wishes, that they explicitly had wanted to avoid the sight of their son’s traumatized remains.
“To find out nearly two years later that there were after-the-fact excuses made to at best justify, or at worst cover up, a terrible decision to cut off their son’s arm without their permission is a slap in the face to them and to all other fallen Marines,” O’Brien said.
The Anguses also did not know until this month that whistleblowers working at the Dover mortuary were so upset by what happened to their son that they eventually triggered a cascade of events that resulted in multiple federal investigations. They documented “gross mismanagement” at the Delaware base charged with caring for America’s war dead.
The investigations were carried out under strict confidentiality over the preceding 18 months while the Anguses and other affected families were kept in the dark.
Sitting in their home that Friday night, Nov. 4, the Anguses listened, in shock, and tried to understand. Before the news could sink in, they were told to brace themselves: The outcome of the investigations would be made public in a few days.
Over the next week, the Anguses learned from a blizzard of news reports that the mortuary supervisor who ordered their son’s arm sawed off had not been fired. The Air Force said it accepted responsibility and apologized, but its investigators had concluded that the only rule violation concerned some missing paperwork. The secretary of defense appointed a distinguished panel of experts to inspect the Dover mortuary, but only current operations, nothing that had happened in the past.
On top of their grief, that has made William and Kathy Angus very angry.
“Mr. and Mrs. Angus pray that no other military family will go through what they are now going through,” O’Brien said. “Mr. and Mrs. Angus feel that everyone involved in the decision to dismember their son without permission, or involved in the aftermath of covering it up, should be immediately terminated from their positions and investigated for criminal wrongdoing. Anything short of this is not befitting the memory of their fallen son.”
Lt. Gen. Darrell Jones, the Air Force’s deputy chief of staff, said the mortuary acted with proper intentions.
“We honor the fallen and strive to follow the wishes of their families,” he said. “We had reason to believe we were acting in the manner they requested and are truly saddened to learn this may not have been the case.”
“The lapses in our standards at Dover, which we sincerely regret, are our responsibility to fix. We apologize for the additional grief this is causing.”
Daniel Angus grew up near Florida’s Gulf Coast. He joined the Marines in 2003 and deployed twice to Iraq. In December 2009, just before his unit was scheduled to go fight in Afghanistan, Angus married his longtime girlfriend, Bonnie, the mother of his 2-year-old daughter, Kaitlyn.
“He wanted to go back in a way, because that was his job,” Bonnie Angus told the News Sentinel of Knoxville, Tenn., at the time. “But he said this time was different, because he had a wife and daughter at home.”
Angus and his unit were on patrol in Helmand province on Jan. 24, 2010, when a roadside bomb exploded. Angus and two other Marines were killed.
By early February, his body had arrived at the Dover mortuary. Like many of the more than 6,000 casualties that have come to Dover over the past decade, Angus’s remains were in a catastrophic state.
The bomb had obliterated his legs. The torso, face and head were largely intact, but his left arm was not. The forearm had been blown off, and the upper arm bone was frozen at a 90-degree angle, meaning he couldn’t fit into a uniform for burial.
Given his condition, several embalmers judged that Angus should be buried in a “full body wrap,” a blanket that carefully encases the remains in plastic sheeting and cotton.
But Quinton Keel, a civilian who was the mortuary division director, overruled them. He said every effort should be made to prepare the body for an open casket, in uniform. He ordered an embalmer to remove the arm bone with a cross saw, even though several staffers had protested that such an act would be unethical and amount to “mutilation.”
Keel later told investigators that he thought he was acting according to the family’s wishes. He declined a request for comment through an Air Force spokesman.
As justification, the Air Force has cited an authorization form that Kathy Angus signed, under which the military “prepares, dresses and caskets the remains.” Air Force investigators also asserted that the Anguses had given verbal instructions to prepare their son for a viewing, something the parents strenuously deny.
“From the moment they were told the news of their son’s death,” said O’Brien, their attorney, “they made the decision to cremate him so that they could remember him as he was, not what he had become as a result of the war. They never told anyone, either implicitly or explicitly, that they wanted to have an open-casket funeral.”
At the memorial service on Feb. 6, 2010, at the Serenity Meadows Funeral Home in Riverview, Fla., before the cremation, the casket was draped with an American flag.
The wooden casket contained what was left of the body of Sgt. Daniel Angus, his left arm sawed off so he could be presented in uniform, from the waist up, for his family to see.
The lid stayed closed.
Public confidence in the adequacy of the Air Force’s internal investigation into the Dover mortuary has waned since the results were disclosed last week.
Members of Congress said they were appalled by the revelations and upset that no one was fired. The Air Force has formally reprimanded the mortuary commander, and reassigned and demoted two civilian supervisors, including Keel.
Hours after the results of the investigations were made public Tuesday, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta commended the Air Force for conducting a “thorough” probe and said he was satisfied with the discipline handed out. Two days later, he reversed himself and ordered the Air Force to reconsider whether tougher punishment is warranted.
Revulsion among veterans groups and military families also has grown since last week’s separate disclosure that the Dover mortuary for years had secretly dumped the cremated portions of troops’ body parts in a Virginia landfill. The portions were of remains that were later identified or recovered from the battlefield, and which relatives had authorized the military to dispose of in an “appropriate” manner.
The Air Force and Pentagon have said there was nothing wrong with the practice, but they changed it in 2008 and now bury the ashes at sea.
Air Force officials said they have improved operations at Dover as a result of the federal investigations. They have sought to reassure military families that fallen service members are treated with the utmost dignity, honor and respect.
“We understand that obligation,” said Gen. Norton Schwartz, the Air Force chief of staff. “We understand the sanctity of the work.”
Critics, however, have accused the Air Force of working harder to protect its image than to take responsibility for shortcomings at Dover.
The Office of Special Counsel, an independent federal watchdog, received the whistleblower complaints in May 2010 and referred them to the Pentagon. Carolyn Lerner, the head of the Office of Special Counsel, said her agency repeatedly prodded the Air Force to notify the Anguses and three other affected families while the probes were unfolding, to no avail.
On March 17, Lerner said a lawyer from her agency met with a senior Air Force attorney and pressed the issue again: Why won’t you tell the families?
According to Lerner, who cited notes of the conversation, the Air Force attorney replied: “We’re concerned the families will go to the media. . . . We’re worried about leaks to the press.”
Brig. Gen. Les Kodlick, the chief Air Force spokesman, did not dispute the account but said the service waited to notify the Anguses and other families until the investigations were complete because they didn’t want to give them partial answers.
“That conversation may have occurred. It doesn’t matter. That’s not the position of the Air Force or how it works,” he said. “We go to the families once, when we’re done and can answer all their questions. It’s that simple.”