Air Force Leaders Take Responsibility for Dover Errors
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Nov. 8, 2011 Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton A. Schwartz and Air Force Secretary Michael B. Donley have taken responsibility for incidents of mishandling remains at the Dover Air Force Base, Del., mortuary.
“There is nothing more sacred, there is nothing that is a more profound obligation than treating our fallen with reverence, dignity and respect,” Schwartz said during a Pentagon news conference this afternoon.
An Air Force investigation found that some remains were not handled in accordance with procedures, and corrective actions began more than a year ago, Schwartz said. The mortuary commander received a letter of reprimand and two civilian employees were demoted and shifted to non-supervisory jobs.
The chief emphasized that the joint service workers at the Dover mortuary take their duties seriously. They “have performed a difficult task for more than 6,300 fallen service members since 2003,” he said. “Nevertheless, this is one area where the standard of performance is perfection.”
The general gave the details of the inquiry into mishandling of remains. The inquiry began when three employees at the mortuary filed complaints via a number of offices including the Air Force Inspector General and the Office of the Special Counsel. The offices received the complaints in May 2010 and in June the Army Inspector General, the Air Force Inspector General and the Air Force Office of Special Investigations began the inquiry.
The investigation found that “senior Air Force Mortuary Affairs Office officials did not meet standards, and that they failed to act with clear indications that processes and procedures at the port mortuary were adequate to assure for accountability for remains,” Schwartz said.
“The investigators found that the loss of two specific portions of remains constituted gross mismanagement,” he continued.
The gross mismanagement came about because three mortuary leaders “failed to properly perceive, and then act upon these indications that there were systemic issues with respect to accountability of remains in the mortuary,” the chief of staff said.
The bodies of a soldier and an airman were affected by the incident. “In one case, we have reason to believe the remains were properly disposed of; in the second case, we cannot make that argument,” Schwartz said. “It is simply unknown what happened to the second set of remains. It is likely that the second set of remains were dealt with as all remains: either returned to the family, or eliminated by cremation, or buried as group remains.”
Another incident involved a U.S. Marine killed by an improvised explosive device. The explosion was catastrophic and fused the Marine’s arm. The family requested to view the remains of the Marine in his dress uniform. The fused bone structure in his arm made it difficult to put his dress uniform on, and leaders decided to remove the arm to put the uniform on.
“The leadership in the mortuary failed to secure the family’s consent through the service liaison,” Schwartz said. “That situation has certainly been corrected.”
Corrective action is underway and include accountability, process and procedures improvement, record keeping and human and labor relations.
The four families involved have all been informed of the circumstances at the mortuary.
In order to assure that the corrective action is sufficient and that policy and procedures are correct, Donley asked Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta to appoint a panel to examine the mortuary and report to him. Chaired by former Surgeon General Richard Carmona, the report is expected in 60 days.