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DOD News Briefing: Dover Port Mortuary Timeline from the Defense Health Board’s Independent Review Subcommittee

Presenters: Acting Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Jo Ann Rooney; Director of Air Force Services Brigadier General Eden J. Murrie; Dover Medical Examiner Navy Captain Craig Mallak; Army Director of Casualty and Mortuary Affairs Colonel Ric
March 30, 2012

JO ANN ROONEY:  Good afternoon. 

            As you know, the Department of Defense has made a sacred and solemn commitment to treat the remains of fallen heroes with the utmost dignity and respect.  For that reason, in response to allegations of improper handling of remains at Dover Port Mortuary, Secretary Panetta directed an independent investigation into current operations at Dover and appointed retired General John Abizaid to lead it.

             General Abizaid appeared in this room last month to brief you on the report, which affirmed that the Department of Defense cares for our fallen in a compassionate and professional manner.  It recommended a series of steps to ensure that we always treat our fallen heroes with the highest degree of honor.  And we are committed to that standard.

             When the report was released last month, concerns were also raised that the remains of 9/11 victims were disposed of in a landfill rather than retired with appropriate dignity.  In response to these concerns, we conducted a detailed examination of the procedures and practices used to identify, treat and process remains from the attack.

             Earlier today I had the opportunity to brief the families of 9/11 victims on this examination, which concluded that their loved ones were treated with the care, dignity and respect that we did so in accordance with appropriate processes and procedures.

             Reflecting our desire to be as transparent as possible about operations at Dover Port Mortuary, today we are releasing additional supporting documents and appendices from the independent review.  Today we are releasing additional supporting documents and appendices from the independent review. 

             In my meeting with the 9/11 family members, I assured them that all those lost on that tragic day will never be forgotten.  The victims deserve the utmost care, dignity and respect with regard to their treatment.  That's what they and their families received and what our fallen and their families continue to receive into the future.  Caring for the fallen and their families is a mission shared by the entire Department of Defense.  And we are committed to remedying any problems or shortfalls exposed in our handling of this mission. 

             The independent panel's work achieved two main goals:  It largely validated the changes we have made, and it identified further areas for improvement.  Our focus is now on the present and the future.  We are confident that the improvement and changes already made, along with these recommendations, provide the basis for us to ensure we meet the extremely high standards we have set for ourselves in executing this solemn obligation.

             Now I'd like to introduce myself, as well as the members of the team with me.  My name is Jo Ann Rooney, and I am the acting undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness.

             BRIGADIER GENERAL EDEN MURRIE:  I'm Eden Murrie, and I'm the director of Air Force Services.

             CAPTAIN CRAIG MALLAK:  I'm Craig Mallak, and I'm the armed forces medical examiner.

             COLONEL RICHARD TEOLIS:  Tony Teolis, director, Army Casualty and Mortuary Affairs.

             MS. ROONEY:  And at this point, we would invite your questions.

             Q:  Can I just ask you about the email exchanges you have in some of the documents, the -- and email exchanges which show that -- it's hard to tell from the redaction, but it seems like there's an Air Force colonel who suggests initially that the -- the unidentified portions of the 9/11 remains be disposed of at sea, and then there's some back-and-forth.  And then there's another official who said:  No, we don't want to do that.  

             Could you give us anymore clarity on who those officials are -- even if you don't give us their names, just their position?

             MS. ROONEY:  Actually, what I'd like to do is give you clarity on that part that you are talking about as part of the overall disposition, which is, as everyone is probably aware and saw from the documents, there were six different segments or ways that the medical examiner came, divided the remains.  And the first was those that were intact, scientifically identified.  The second:  those that were not intact but which the team was able to identify. 

             The third is a group of remains that we knew were human and they were identified after the initial release for non-intact bodies, so we were able to identify them but it was later on. 

             The fourth category are those portions that we knew were not terrorists but did not meet thresholds for positive identification.  So we knew they were human but we could not identify. 

            The fifth were terrorist remains, and the sixth, which is what those emails refer to, were the non-associated -- we call fragmented material, or in some cases the term "remains" is used -- and they could not be further identified.  So those were specimens that we knew were biological in nature but we could not determine, first, if they were human, or second of all, whether there were any terrorist remains mixed in. 

             So that was at the heart of the debate, first because we did not know whether these were human remains to begin with, we knew they were biological, but they were mixed in with pieces from the building, from the airplane.

             So in the debate you're talking to, without specifics, are really people talking about that particular subsection and what would be appropriate, and that the practice in a situation like that with biological would be to treat that as medical waste and dispose accordingly.

            Q:  Right, I understand the in the remains.  What I wanted to ask, though, was -- but there is a discussion, about this Group F that you discussed just now -- there is a discussion -- it seems to be from a colonel of some sort -- suggesting that they be spread at sea.  Can you -- and then there's someone who says no; because of the nature of the remains, which you've just explained again, that person says no, we need to dispose of them as -- you know, like with medical waste.

             Can you tell me, again, any more about who that person might be, again, not a name, but a position?

             MS. ROONEY:  I would say that the debate ranged from -- throughout the department into very senior positions.  And there's some information in that appendix that you saw even indicating where the final memo from the undersecretary of defense for personnel at that time actually set forth the memo.  And that has been in the press before.  So the debate actually was throughout, both in the Dover as well as any of our medical professionals.  Truly again, the idea was we wanted to do the best we could for dignity and care for the remains, but wanted to really determine whether if these were remains or if they were biological.  So it was a range of people.

             STAFF:  Next question.

             Yes, sir.

             Q:  Michael Hoffman with Military.com.  I just wanted to ask the Air Force general here a little bit -- there was some interesting detail about some of the manning decisions, about who was going to be stationed at Dover and the decisions about how long the period of time that they would stay there.  I was wondering if you could just go through with us a little bit of time on how some of those decisions were made of who was going to be at Dover, how long they were going to be there, and maybe if you could even talk a little bit about plans for the future for Dover Air Force Base and the Port Mortuary.

             MS. ROONEY:  I'm not quite sure what you're referring to in the appendices -- documents that talked about manning.

             Q:  Well, they were -- OK, go ahead.  I mean -- you know --

             MS. ROONEY:  Well, what I was going to say is a lot of the employees that had been at Dover had been there for a number of years.  The command position, of course, we have swapped out and will continue to do that on a rotating -- on a rotating basis.

             Q:  Many of the airmen that were there, you just explained a little bit in the appendices, were there on deployments in -- within the States.

             So there was a discussion back and forth on how long they should be there, who should be there, talking about reservists would be there or not.  I was just wondering did the decision (-- audible) within the Air Force for that portion of it.

            GEN. MURRIE:  Well, I'm not sure what you mean by the decisions in terms of that.  But there are permanent party assigned there, to include a command, commander in charge of the unit, and then during times of war, as we are right now, we robust the manning and the personnel with a deployment schedule. 

             Some of the deployment times that you saw throughout the history there from 2000 on was 120 days.  The Air Force has now gone to a 180-day rotation.  And so that's how long those deployers are there.  They come both from -- it's a total force deployment, as are all of our deployments, and so they come from the Reserve and from the active duty.

             STAFF: OK.  Jeff.

             Q:  Thank you.  Jeff Schogol, Air Force Times.  The supporting documentation includes the 2011 Air Force Inspector General's Report, which was excoriated by the OSC.  And the report seems to justify and minimize the allegations of mishandling remains at Dover.  For example, they go into detail about the Marine whose humerus was left so they sawed it off to put it in casket, and they said, well, yes, there is no need to notify the next of kin and this was done to accommodate the next of kin's wishes.

             Is the Air Force able to police itself on this matter?

             GEN. MURRIE:  Yes.  And I think that General Abizaid pointed out as he did the independent review and looked at the corrective actions that are already in place and the ones that we have laid out for the future, and there is a matrix in the panel that talks about the current corrective actions.  And Dr. Rooney alluded to the fact that as we go through the Abizaid report and look at his recommendations, we'll continue to improve our processes and procedures.

             Q:  So why hasn't anyone been fired?

             GEN. MURRIE:  Due process is being followed, and there are ongoing disciplinary actions that will be completed in late to mid-April.

             Q:  Thank you.

             STAFF:  All right.  Anybody else before we -- (inaudible)?

             Q:  (Inaudible) -- going back to the remains, you said you knew they -- you couldn't even identify the remains as human.  You said they were biological remains.  So if they're not human, what else would they possibly be in that situation?

             MS. ROONEY:  They could have been anything biological.  So they're may have been human, but it could have been something from someone's lunch -- anything that would be of a biological nature.  I'll ask the captain who actually did some of that work.

             CAPT. MALLAK:  Yes, ma'am.  Thank you.  Our instructions to those in the field at the site of a mass disaster is to send in anything that we think we might be able to get an identification of a victim off of and let the forensic professionals at Dover evaluate them, test them and see if we can make additional identifications.  We would rather have literally thousands of portions that we can never make an ID off of than miss one piece that is something that we could make the ID.  So we have literally hundreds and thousands that come in with every one of these mass disasters and we never make an ID off of.  But what we do is evaluate them with the best techniques and try to account for every single victim and every single incident. 

             STAFF:  Any other questions?  All right. 

            STAFF:  All right, everyone.  Thank you.  Appreciate it.

             Q:  Thank you.  General, I was wondering if you could expand when you're talking about the possible disciplinary actions that will come out in April.  Are we talking about separation?  Are we talking about prosecution?  Can you elaborate? 

             GEN. MURRIE:  No, I can't for an ongoing -- disciplinary actions that are ongoing.  I can't add anything. 

            STAFF:  All right, everyone.  Thank you.  Appreciate it.

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