Panel Recommends Changes at Dover Mortuary
By Karen Parrish
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Feb. 28, 2012 A Defense Health Board subcommittee has released a report outlining 20 recommendations aimed at ensuring service members’ remains at Dover Port Mortuary, Del., receive the highest degree of honor, dignity and reverence, the subcommittee chairman said today.
Retired Army Gen. John P. Abizaid, who led forces in Iraq and Afghanistan and commanded U.S. Central Command, headed the Defense Department’s review of policies, procedures and processes at the mortuary.
“The good news is that there's been a lot of progress made at Dover,” he said at a Pentagon news conference.
Abizaid acknowledged that records and anecdotal evidence going back to 1990 show infrequent but repeated cases of cremation and and disposal of remains, including some unidentified remains of 9/11 victims, before those improvements were put in place.
The panel did not look deeply into those incidents because their charge was to find improvements, the general said, but did include a timeline of past operations in the report.
“We thought that the timeline was important for understanding what went on there, and the timeline goes back pretty far,” he explained. “There were many things that were going wrong there because of lack of command and technical oversight, and policy oversight, and coordination.”
It's critically important, he said, that defense and service leaders “own up to what the problems were out there, that we correct them and understand that this is not just an Air Force problem. This is a Department of Defense issue.”
The subcommittee’s 20 recommendations center on strengthening command channels, command authority and department oversight, as well as increasing mortuary inspections and workforce training, Abizaid said. Problems at the mortuary “need to be corrected right away,” he noted.
“There's nothing more important than ensuring that our troops in the field know that if they give their last full measure, that the country will do everything for them to make sure that they are treated with dignity and respect and honor and reverence on the way to their final resting place,” he added.
Abizaid said workers at the mortuary are good people who are dedicated, professional, hardworking and patriotic -- but past procedures there were fragmented because multiple organizations, with divided mortuary and coroner functions, had overlapping roles and no central reporting chains.
Mistakes “happened too many times,” he noted.
“It’s about confidence,” Abizaid said. “Confidence has been lost in the ability of these organizations to care properly for our fallen. We must restore that confidence.”
Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, who testified on the defense budget before Congress, released a written statement on the panel’s report. The statement noted the secretary, Joint Chiefs Chairman Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, and the Army and Air Force’s military and civilian senior leaders heard a full briefing on the report yesterday.
Panetta said he has directed department and service leaders to develop an implementation plan for the subcommittee’s recommendations.
“My continuing promise to all the families of our fallen heroes is that every step will be taken to protect the honor and respect that their loved ones richly deserve,” the secretary said in his statement. “Having been to Dover, I consider this a sacred place with a sacred responsibility. We will ensure that we continue to meet our responsibility to deliver the greatest respect and reverence to our fallen heroes. We can do no less.”
Panetta said in a November news conference announcing the subcommittee’s formation that shortly after he took office in July, he learned of the problems at Dover from Air Force Secretary Michael B. Donley and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton A. Schwartz.
“It was clear that they took these allegations seriously, and that they were committed to strengthening the department’s handling of this most sacred and solemn task,” the secretary told reporters in November.
Along with Abizaid, panel members included retired Army Gen. Fred Franks, a member of DOD’s health board; Ruth Stonecifer, representative of families supported by the Dover Port Mortuary; Vic Snyder, a doctor and former U.S. representative from Arkansas; Garold Huey, a funeral director and embalmer who served in the Navy as an enlisted embalming technician; Jacquelyn Taylor, executive director of the New England Institute and an internationally recognized leader in funeral service education; Dr. Bruce Parks, a forensic pathologist; Caleb S. Cage, an Army veteran and executive director of the Nevada Office of Veterans Services; and Vernie R. Fountain, an expert in embalming and postmortem reconstructive surgery.
Panetta said in today’s statement he is grateful to Abizaid and other subcommittee members “for their dedication and professional input into this process.”
“I know that they share my personal commitment to meeting the highest standards of care for the remains of our fallen heroes,” the secretary added.