Panetta Orders Review of Dover Mortuary Operations
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Nov. 8, 2011 Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta has directed former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Richard Carmona to conduct an independent review of operations at the Port Mortuary at Dover Air Force Base, Del., following an Air Force investigation that found some remains there were not handled in accordance with procedures.
“This panel will evaluate the changes that have been implemented to ensure that we are treating all of our fallen service members with the greatest reverence, dignity and respect,” Panetta said in a written statement.
The secretary stressed that one of the department’s most sacred responsibilities “is ensuring that the remains of our fallen heroes are recovered and returned to their families with the honor and dignity they have earned.”
Panetta said he “was deeply disturbed” to learn about the possible improper handling and preparation of remains of four service members at the mortuary.
The Air Force Inspector General and the Office of Special Counsel have completed their investigations into the charges. A former commander and two other mortuary officials were disciplined as a result of the investigation, Defense Department officials said.
Three civilian employees at the mortuary filed complaints last year about how some remains were handled at the facility.
The service implemented multiple corrective actions as a result of the investigation, Air Force officials said.
The Air Force Inspector General began its investigation in June 2010, and focused primarily on the handling of remains of four service members. The investigators conducted nearly 50 interviews and an extensive review of mortuary operating procedures.
They found no evidence that anyone intentionally mishandled remains, but concluded the mortuary staff failed to maintain accountability while processing portions of remains for three service members. While it is likely that disposition of remains was by an appropriate method, it could not be shown that it was in accordance with the families’ directions, officials said.
Each family received remains of their service member for interment, according to officials. The staff, however, was not able to ensure additional portions of remains were handled in a manner consistent with the families’ instructions.
Investigators determined senior mortuary officials failed to provide proper management and corrective actions and did not respond appropriately to indications that procedures were inadequate to prevent problems related to the tracking of portions of human remains.
Additionally, the Air Force investigation determined the mortuary staff could have communicated more clearly with the representatives of a sister service about restorative actions taken to prepare the remains of a service member, killed by an improvised explosive device, whose family requested to view him in uniform.
In addition, the investigation found that while there were some deficiencies in administrative procedures, documentation and electronic record keeping, the processes to which they related were appropriately conducted. Public health was not endangered.
“The investigation concluded that the mission was always conducted with reverence, dignity, honor and respect for all served through the facility,” said Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton A. Schwartz. “However, the standard is 100-percent accountability in every instance of this important mission.
“We can -- and will -- do better, and as a result of the allegations and investigation our ability to care for our fallen warriors is now stronger,” Schwartz said. “In fact, throughout the past year new processes have been put in place to ensure the exacting standards are met every time.”
The Air Force has contacted family-designated representatives of the four families directly affected and discussed these matters with them personally.
“It is the [mortuary] staff’s mission and obligation to fulfill the nation’s commitment to caring for our fallen service members while also serving and supporting the families of these heroes,” said Air Force Secretary Michael B. Donley. “The employees who brought forth their concerns gave the Air Force an opportunity to make the operation of AFMAO better and stronger. Their initiative allowed us to correct procedures and make long-term improvements to management of Air Force mortuary operations.”
“I want to reassure our men and women in uniform, and the American public, that the Air Force mortuary standards they expect for our fallen heroes are being met,” Schwartz said.
The Dover mortuary’s staff consists of members of all branches of the military, including civilians and reservists. The staff includes mortuary affairs specialists, morticians and other technical experts.
The staff operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and regularly responds to the trauma of war as staff members prepare the remains of fallen warriors under difficult circumstances. Since 2003, the mortuary center has prepared more than 6,300 fallen service members for return to their loved ones, according to DOD information.
Families of fallen service members may contact the Air Force toll free at 1-855-637-2583 or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org if they have questions.