WASHINGTON — The Pentagon defended steps it has taken to more respectfully handle the remains of fallen soldiers after a report detailed the extent of dumping cremated body parts at a Virginia landfill.
Last month, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta ordered a review of why the cremated remains were routinely disposed of in the landfill, despite a protocol requiring such matters be handled in a dignified in respectful manner.
New data from the Air Force obtained by The Washington Post showed that 976 fragments of remains from 274 military personnel were incinerated and taken to the landfill between 2004 and 2008. All told, when other unidentified remains were included, more than 2,700 incinerated fragments were discarded in the landfill, the Post reported.
The Air Force previously had said it could not estimate the exact number of body parts handled that way.
George Little, the Pentagon press secretary, told reporters Thursday that Panetta was aware of the Post report and was committed “to the principle that our fallen heroes … deserve the very best in the way that they are treated.”
Lt Gen. Darrell Jones, the director of manpower, personnel and services for the Air Force, acknowledged it was a mistake to turn the cremated remains over to a contractor for disposal in a landfill.
“It’s certainly not the way we would have done it, looking back,” he said.
Officials said there are no plans to notify next of kin whose loved ones’ remains may have ended up in the landfill. Families are asked upon the first transfer of remains whether they wish to be notified if additional remains are discovered.
“Our concern is we don’t want to do anything to reopen that wound,” Jones said.
The Air Force has established a telephone hot line for relatives seeking more information, he said.
In 2008, the Air Force changed its procedures so that in cases where families have said they do not want additional notification, the remains are buried at sea.
But Jones disclosed that the first such burial at sea occurred only this year. In a ceremony, 14 urns containing service members remains were disposed of from a Navy ship, Jones said.
The landfill dumping is the latest example of strains on the Dover Air Force Base mortuary, which initially handles all of America’s war dead.
The Air Force already has disciplined three top officials at the Dover mortuary for “gross mismanagement” after finding out that they lost track of body parts of U.S. troops killed in Afghanistan. Panetta subsequently called for a review of those sanctions, calling them inadequate.
The panel Panetta called for last month was to be led by former U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona, but he stepped down after announcing his candidacy for a Senate seat in Arizona that same week. Retired Army Gen. John Abizaid was chosen to replace Carmona.
David S. Cloud in Washington contributed to this report.