How badly does the military have to fail in a key mission before someone gets fired?
Federal investigators said Tuesday they had uncovered “gross mismanagement” at the Dover Air Force Base mortuary, which has the sacred mission of handling America’s war dead from Afghanistan and Iraq.
The Pentagon has disciplined three senior officials at the mortuary in response to multiple investigations. Two Air Force civilians were reassigned to positions of lesser responsibility; an Air Force colonel was issued a letter of reprimand for “failure in leadership” and reassigned.
So far, no one has been fired.
In a string of scandals over the past few years, former defense secretary Robert M. Gates did not shy from firing top brass, as well as civilian officials, for big mistakes. He once told reporters: “If I’ve set one tone at the Department of Defense, it’s that when things go wrong, people will be held accountable.”
And they were.
Gates fired the secretary of the Army and the two-star general in charge of Walter Reed Army Medical Center after The Washington Post exposed the dismal state of treatment for the wounded there.
A year later, he fired the Air Force’s civilian and military chiefs after a Pentagon investigation found “a chain of failures” in the safeguarding of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
Then again, last year, the defense secretary dismissed the two-star general in charge of the Joint Strike Fighter program, which had been plagued by cost overruns.
The trouble at Dover most closely mirrors the scandal at Arlington National Cemetery, which led to the dismissal of the cemetery’s two top administrators, with full retirement benefits in tact. Some members of Congress were incredulous that the two men weren’t more severely punished.
It remains to be seen whether Gates’s successor, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, will fire anyone for the alleged failings at Dover. It may be too soon to fire anyone.
The Air Force inspector general, among those who conducted the investigations, did not uphold any of the 14 accusations filed against the three senior mortuary officials, concluding that there was not enough evidence to show that they had personally broken rules or regulations.
The Air Force also found no evidence of criminal wrongdoing.