MR. MORRELL: Thank you all for coming on late notice.
We've called this press conference because Secretary Gates was informed earlier today of an issue at the Dover Port Mortuary.
There is no mission more important than the dignified return of our fallen heroes to their families, and the Dover Air Force Base team has performed this mission with great care for a number of years.
However, here are the facts as we know them. There is no cremation facility at Dover Air Force Base. Currently the Dover Port Mortuary has contracted with two local funeral homes to perform cremations.
Secretary Gates learned today that the crematory of one of the mortuaries is not co-located with the funeral home and is in an industrial part of Kent County, Delaware. The facility has three retorts, or incinerators. Two are used for human remains, the third for pet remains. While the facility is fully licensed, Secretary Gates believes the site and signage are insensitive and entirely inappropriate for the dignified treatment of our fallen.
Accordingly, he is pleased that the secretary of the Air Force has directed the following corrective actions: Cease using the off-site crematory, use only crematory facilities that are co-located with licensed funeral homes, and have a military presence during the off-base process at the funeral home facilities.
The secretary of the Air Force has directed the Air Force vice chief of staff, General Duncan McNabb, to aggressively follow up on all actions associated with these issues. He will be closely coordinating his efforts with the Army staff.
Furthermore, Secretary Gates has directed David Chu, the undersecretary of Defense for personnel and readiness, to conduct a comprehensive review of existing DoD policies and practices governing the cremation and handling of remains of U.S. service members.
The Department will, of course, keep the Congress fully informed of the progress of this review and, as well, report back the results once completed.
The families of the fallen have the secretary's deepest apology. Those still serving have his commitment that this Department will do everything it possibly can to adhere to the principle that the remains of all members of the armed forces must be treated with the dignity and respect that their sacrifice demands.
Joining me now to field your questions are the director of the Air Force staff, Lieutenant General Frank Klotz, and Lieutenant General David Huntoon, director of the Army staff.
Q How did this problem --
MR. MORRELL: Tom.
You said the secretary's issuing an apology. You're here with two senior officers. Apology for what? Were remains of fallen soldiers ever cremated where pets were cremated, or is it simply a possible appearance of impropriety?
MR. MORRELL: We have absolutely no evidence whatsoever at this point that any human remains were at all ever mistreated, were ever not cremated where they were supposed to be cremated.
That said, the secretary believes that it is inappropriate, even if though permissible under the rules and regulations, to cremate our fallen, our heroes in a facility that also cremates pets.
Q General, what specifically brought this to the secretary's attention, though, today? What was the incident? And then also I don't understand. I mean, if what -- if there's -- I don't know much about crematoriums, but if there's two specific incinerators for humans and one for pets, then what's insensitive about that? What's the problem there?
MR. MORRELL: We just think our heroes deserve to be treated better than that, and we want to make sure that they are being incinerated, cremated, in a facility that is dedicated entirely to humans. And the mere fact that they are in a facility that also performs this same service for pets is, in the estimation of the secretary and, I daresay, almost all the men and women you see walking around this building in uniform today, not appropriate for their service and sacrifice.
But as to the incident itself that prompted this, let me have General Huntoon, who can speak more directly to that, how that came up.
GEN. HUNTOON: The first thing I would like to say is that the senior leadership of all the services hold the mission of returning our fallen comrades to be of the highest order of importance in our profession.
And so this morning we received a report from a soldier who had gone to Dover. He had heard that one of his former comrades who had been killed in the war was to be cremated, and he wanted to go there to be a physical presence, to be a part of that bond that is so unique to this warrior ethos in our profession.
He went there. He was concerned and reported to us this morning that he was concerned about the way in which the facility looked. He felt that it was insensitive. That is to say that the crematorium was one that was -- one that did both human remains and pet remains. The idea that there was a co-location here.
Now -- so his larger message was we care in this profession about our fallen comrades. He was there to support one of his comrades. And so he simply did what he should have done, what was right, which was to let us know that he felt that this particular facility was insensitive and inappropriate to this larger mission.
Q General, can I just follow up on that? It seems very unusual for a complaint made by a single soldier to rise in the course of a day to your level and to the level of the secretary. How did that happen so quickly?
GEN. HUNTOON: The individual involved is someone who works here in the Pentagon, so he rightly reported this up. And you know, I would tell you that it's not that unusual. It seems to me that -- across the services, as I mentioned before, this is a mission of the highest importance to our -- to our culture, certainly. And our concern about taking care of our fallen comrades is a(n) essential part of our ethos, not just in the United States Army but across all the services. So it certainly captured our attention right away.
MR. MORRELL: Julian.
Q Why -- how many fallen soldiers and servicemembers were cremated at this facility? Had the Air Force or another service ever reviewed this crematorium before? And you spoke of a sign. What was that sign?
MR. MORRELL: As for the numbers, I think, Julian, it's a good question, but those are among the things that will be reviewed by the various people that I've identified.
I'll let General Klotz talk to the Air Force issue.
The sign identifies this facility as a pet crematory. My understanding of this issue -- and I'm just getting read up on it now -- is that many facilities that co-locate disposal of human remains and pet remains often advertise their pet services because the human services are associated usually with a funeral parlor, so they don't identify that portion of it. But what this appeared to this particular soldier was that human -- that our fallen heroes would be taken to a pet crematory.
We learned further, as we looked into this, that it was -- there are separate facilities within this one mortuary. But even the fact that they are separate is not enough for us. The secretary believes that we should just not be taking our fallen heroes, our men and women who have given the ultimate sacrifice, to a facility of this standard.
Let me have the Air Force -- I forget what the question was, General.
Q It was whether the Air Force had looked at this facility before and reviewed it.
GEN. KLOTZ: First of all, let me echo what my colleague, General Huntoon, has said. The Air Force takes, and the people who work at the Dover Port Mortuary at Dover Air Force Base, take the mission of returning our fallen heroes with great -- with dignity to be a paramount importance. And therefore we are concerned about the insensitivity of the situation, which has already been described.
The Dover Port Mortuary is the single point in the United States in which those who -- servicemembers who have died overseas are repatriated to the United States. There is no crematory facility associated with the Dover Port Mortuary. For that reason, the Dover Port Mortuary has had to contract with local funeral homes in the Dover area in order to perform that particular service.
Neither one of those two facilities that we have contracts with currently, by themselves, are capable of meeting the need on the timelines which we expect them to meet those needs. So we've had to use these two facilities since, roughly, about 2001.
In terms of what actually happened in terms of inspection of the facilities, as the contracts (inaudible) be written, that something that we are -- we have asked at the level of our secretary of the Air Force, and at the Air Force chief, to take a look at. And tomorrow I will be going to Dover Air Force Base, along with the four-star commander of Air Mobility Command, General Art Lichte, to check into, specifically, the kind of question that you've raised.
Q So you don't know if any military officer ever examined the facility where these bodies were being cremated?
GEN. KLOTZ: At this point, I do not know, here in the Pentagon. That is not to suggest that anyone has -- that no one has, in fact, done that. That is something which we need to take a look at.
MR. MORRELL: Yeah, go ahead.
Q Sir, I understand that that means that all of the fallen since 2001, anyone who was cremated went through one of these two facilities?
GEN. KLOTZ: I wouldn't want to say categorically that is the case, but those are the two facilities -- we have been using contracts since 2001 in the Dover area to do that.
Q But people can also -- families might prefer their hometowns, right? I mean, it's not the case of everybody --
GEN. KLOTZ: Yes, That is absolutely right. That is absolutely right.
MR. MORRELL: In fact, it's probably more often than not that's the case. And I think -- in the meantime, I think that one of the corrective actions is that -- that the services will be paying for their remains to be flown to a funeral home of their choice for this service to take place.
(To Gen. Klotz.) Is that right?
GEN. KLOTZ: That I -- that I don't --
MR. MORRELL: Okay, I think we're -- we're reviewing that now.
Q Can you -- the sign, did it indicate the entire facility was a pet crematory? It did.
MR. MORRELL: Yes, but I -- the distinction I'm making there is I -- my understanding is that's common practice, meaning that you don't advertise the fact that you perform that service for humans because that is usually done in connection to a funeral home. You don't take your -- your loved ones directly to a crematory; you take them to a funeral home. Many people take their pets directly to a pet crematory.
Q And the fact that the -- that these separate crematories were used for humans, that's based on what, the assurance of the funeral -- the funeral home?
MR. MORRELL: My understanding is there are actually distinct facilities within this one operation. Two are dedicated to cremation of human remains and one to the cremation of pet remains. So there are separate facilities under one roof.
Yes. Go ahead, Ann.
Q What is the name of this company that conducts these things? What is the --
MR. MORRELL: I don't have it off the top of my head. We can get to you, certainly.
Q Okay. And do you know how long those different facilities have existed for? I mean, I guess, sentimentally, was this primarily, you know, a pet crematorium that was, you know, added on or used for this other purpose?
GEN. KLOTZ: No, our understanding -- it is -- it is not primarily a pet crematorium. As has been indicated, there were two retorts for the cremation of human remains. And we understand -- although we are not the experts on mortuary affairs across the United States, we understand this is not an -- not necessarily an uncommon practice that you would have both activities taking place within the same -- the same facility.
Q But if the reason for advertising just pets is that people go to funeral homes, then why would anybody go to there for humans?
MR. MORRELL: Listen, again, we're getting into details of how funeral homes conduct their business. I would imagine that a funeral home would have a contract with this particular facility to perform cremation services for them, if they did not have a facility at their particular funeral home.
Anybody else, before we get too deep into how funeral homes operate? Because we're just not experts on that here.
Q Just two questions.
Can you describe your recommendation about off-base -- military presence, off-base, for the remains?
And also, can you tell us the rank of this soldier who brought this to light?
GEN. KLOTZ: Presence is very important. From the time that a soldier is killed in combat, we provide an escort when that soldier returns from theater. And then, when the soldier finishes the medical processing at the Dover Mortuary, another soldier picks up responsibility to serve as the escort for that fallen comrade and -- as he or she returns to their home for internment. And I would also point out that, in addition to that presence, the United States military also provides a general officer who serves to represent each service at every internment that we do for a fallen comrade in our conflicts today.
So the question that you asked was the issue of presence. And the -- the issue that we are examining here is, do we have complete presence throughout this entire process, from the time that the soldier returns into the United States to the time of internment. And we are simply taking another look at that.
Q I was going to ask you about the rank of the officer about that or the soldier that brought this to light.
GEN. HUNTOON: We'd prefer not to identify. Clearly, this is a time when we are most concerned about the privacy of the family that is involved in this particular issue, and we will not identify the individual.
Q But why not? I mean, why not identify his rank? I mean, if it was a general officer, it's a different situation than if it's a private.
MR. MORRELL: He's not talking about the deceased; he's talking about the person who alerted us to it.
GEN. HUNTOON: I would just say that this was a soldier who was concerned about his comrade and was present at the -- at the mortuary when the cremation took place.
MR. MORRELL: Okay. Anybody else before we wrap it up?
Q So he wasn't the escort, right, the military escort? Just an individual?
GEN. HUNTOON (?): That's correct.
Q And then also, Geoff, you mentioned the contract that -- with this -- this facility. So that contract was presumably with Dover Air Force Base and this facility, right? So Dover should have had a role or a responsibility to make sure that everything that was conducted at this facility was done with the utmost respect for the soldiers involved, the servicemembers. So is that where the breakdown was here? Did Dover not --
MR. MORRELL: I think that's what we're going to look into. I mean, those are among the things that need to be addressed by the series of investigations that I've announced here.
Yeah, let -- okay, Mike.
Q Has the secretary or anybody given a timetable to the investigation?
MR. MORRELL: This has all happened rather quickly. We have -- he is -- clearly, by the fact that we called you all here together rather hastily, late on a Friday night, he's clearly very concerned about this and wanted to communicate that to the American people, to our troops and their families. So this will be addressed urgently.
As you -- as the general mentioned, he's going up there tomorrow, on a Saturday, as are other personnel. I can tell you this, that the secretary has long had plans to go visit Dover himself. He had to scrap a trip that had been scheduled, I think, a couple weeks ago. I would imagine that you would see him traveling to Dover in the not-too-distant future as well.
A couple more, yeah.
Q Just for clarification, we are talking about just this one facility that you're no longer going to be using, and it will be up to the Dover Mortuary to get another contract for a crematorium?
MR. MORRELL: Well, it's more than that there's just the one -- this one facility. I mean, the second point is that we will use crematory facilities that are co-located with licensed funeral homes. The key there is that we want to be within the confines of a -- of a -- of an operation that deals with human remains exclusively.
Q If there are just two of these places, it seems unusual that you wouldn't know the names of both of those locations. So --
MR. MORRELL: Well, I'll be happy to get you the names. I just came to the podium without the names at my disposal. We're not hiding the names; we'll provide you with the names.
Q Okay. Just -- you'll get them, like, within an hour?
MR. MORRELL: Yes. Yeah.
Q Is this going to slow down the process at all? You said, apparently, initially that these units were picked up because they can -- tend to meet the demand, if I understand correctly. Is this -- this getting it now with co-location with funeral homes going to slow down the process at all?
GEN. KLOTZ: That's an excellent question and one of the first concerns that leapt to our mind as we learned about this this morning. And that's one of the things that we want to check out as we go and meet with the Dover officials tomorrow at Dover.
Dover is a relatively small city. It's not as large as Washington, D.C. or Philadelphia or New York. So there is a limitation in terms of the number of facilities that could do that. I understand that there are at least one other facility we might -- we might be considering, and that is something we will work very, very quickly.
MR. MORRELL: Okay. Thank you all for joining us tonight.
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