Air Force Reportedly Dumped Remains Of 274 Troops
LYNN NEARY, HOST:
The Air Force is under intense pressure today after reports that the partial remains of more than 270 American troops were dumped in a Virginia landfill. The remains were included with loads of mortuary medical waste that were incinerated before being dumped. NPR's Allison Keyes has the story.
ALLISON KEYES, BYLINE: In a press conference late this afternoon, Air Force Lieutenant General Darrell Jones said the remains were treated with respect and said he regretted any additional grief the Air Force's past practices may have caused. He explains the disposition of partial remains of troops prior to 2008.
LIEUTENANT GENERAL DARRELL JONES: We took the unidentified portions under military escort in a dignified manner to a local funeral home, and they were cremated.
KEYES: He says the cremated remains were then turned over to a contractor for incineration. Jones says the remains were disposed of under what he calls industry standards, but he didn't clarify which Air Force or Dover officials knew where that meant they were headed.
JONES: Who was assigned there that knew, you know, that they were going to a landfill, I can't really speak to, but that was the common industry practice at the time.
KEYES: But Jones was unable to cite any other instance in the industry where human remains were being disposed of in landfills after being incinerated. He says the point here is that in 2008, when the Air Force realized what was happening, it began offering families the option of a retirement at sea. He insists the reason families weren't told about this practice is because they opted not to be.
JONES: We don't want to do anything to increase the angst or re-open a wound of a family that said, you know, we have come to closure.
KEYES: The remains of Gari-Lynn Smith's husband, Army Sergeant Scott Smith, were among those dumped in the landfill. She says she's not surprised to hear that the remains of other troops were handled the same way.
GARI-LYNN SMITH: So far, to date, they've done nothing but lie and cover this up and try to withhold the information.
KEYES: Mrs. Smith was told about her husband's remains in a letter from mortuary personnel.
SMITH: I just cried. I just don't understand how these people can sleep at night.
KEYES: The Washington Post first reported that the Air Force disposed of remains of 274 military personnel in the landfill before 2008. Meantime, veterans have been called in the Washington, D.C., office of the American Legion.
PETER GAYTON: They are quite upset.
KEYES: Executive director Peter Gayton wonders whether reports of mismanagement of remains both at the Dover Air Force Base mortuary and at Arlington National Cemetery reflect on a nation that's failing to recognize the honor and dignity of military service.
GAYTON: If we're allowing their remains as they come home to be mistreated in this manner, where are we as a nation headed?
KEYES: The Air Force says that practice ended three years ago. Mrs. Smith says the Air Force has never apologized to her, but even if one were forthcoming now, it wouldn't be enough.
SMITH: It's sort of like a child being caught doing something, the parent forcing them to apologize when they're not really sorry. They're just sorry they got caught.
KEYES: The Air Force has a hotline for concerned families to call, although it says it's only received 10 inquiries so far. Jones says officials are prepared to apologize to any families with questions, and the Air Force will provide them with any information about the disposition of their loved ones that's available. Mrs. Smith's congressman, Democratic New Jersey Rep. Rush Holt has called for congressional hearings into the landfill burial practice. And the U.S. Office of Special Counsel is in the midst of a probe over whether whistle-blowers at the port mortuary in Dover faced retaliation.
They reported what the OSC calls serious misconduct unrelated to the landfill issue. That investigation is expected to be complete in January. Allison Keyes, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.