Families of the fallen and veterans organizations reacted angrily Tuesday to the news that the Air Force had mishandled the remains of the country’s war dead at its main mortuary at Dover Air Force Base.
“It is shocking to hear that our fallen warriors were not returned to their families with dignity and respect,” said Joe Davis, a spokesman for the Veterans of Foreign Wars. “The VFW wants the Air Force to get to the bottom of this, to discipline those culpable, and to ensure necessary controls are in-place and followed to never permit such disrespectful incidents to occur ever again.”
Gloria Crothers, who came to Dover to welcome her son (pictured at left) home after he was killed in Afghanistan in 2009, said she was “disheartened” by the news.
“How can you not know what body parts belong to what soldier,” said Crothers, of Conowingo, Md. “That is very disrespectful to the person who just sacrificed their life for the country. This is not acceptable. It’s just not.”
At the time, mortuary officials did not let her see the body of her son, Marine Corps Sgt. Michael Heede Jr., saying his body was too damaged. She protested because her son’s fellow Marines had told her that her son’s body was still intact. Seeing any part of him, even just a limb, would help accept his death, she said.
“I know every tattoo he had on his body,” she said.
News of the problems at Dover only heightened her concerns.
“I had doubts about my son being in that coffin, and now I have more doubts,” she said.
Ken Drevnick, whose son, Army Spec. Daniel P. Drevnick, was killed in Iraq, has doubts as well. Parts of his son’s body were missing and he now wonders if they might have been lost.
“To lose or misplace body parts, that’s unforgivable,” said Drevnick, who lives outside of St. Paul, Minn. “It leaves questions, and that’s unsettling.”
When Shane Wilhelm went to Dover after his son, Army Pvt. Keiffer Wilhelm, was killed in 2009, everything appeared professionally run. There was a brief, somber ceremony involving a color guard. A chaplain said a prayer. And his son’s casket — the military calls them “transfer cases” — was brought from the plane and taken to the mortuary.
“We even have a video of it,” Shane Wilhelm said. “To hear this now, it’s like, you’ve got to be kidding me. It’s pretty upsetting news.”
Coming so close to Veterans Day, the scandal hits particularly hard, said Paul Rieckhoff, the executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
“The reports of gross mismanagement at the Dover Air Force Base mortuary are appalling and tremendously disheartening,” he said. “Our nation has a solemn duty to return our fallen to their families with the utmost dignity and respect and we expect nothing less from the military.”
Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who has had oversight of the problems plaguing Arlington National cemetery, said she saw parallels between the two scandals.
“As we learned from the heartbreaking incompetence at Arlington National Cemetery, management matters,” she said. “At Arlington, leadership changed; the officials responsible at Dover must be held accountable, as well. “