“I trust Mike Donley,” Panetta said during a news conference. “I think he tried to deal with this matter, to go after with the issues involved here, to correct them and to do whatever was necessary to deal with it.”
Panetta’s instructions came two days after he commended the Air Force for conducting a “thorough” investigation and said he agreed with the disciplinary actions it imposed. Asked what had changed, he cited a report issued by an independent federal watchdog, the Office of Special Counsel, which criticized the Air Force for being too lenient and not taking full responsibility.
Donley promised that his disciplinary review would be “exceedingly thorough and rigorous, as our fallen and the families they leave behind deserve nothing less.”
For the first time since the mortuary scandal erupted on Tuesday, Donley publicly expressed remorse for the problems.
“The lapses in our standards at Dover, which we sincerely regret, are our responsibility to fix,” he said in a statement. “I want to reassure our military family that our fallen are being treated, and will continue to be treated, with the utmost reverence, dignity and respect.”
Members of Congress, however, said they were appalled to learn that, in addition to losing body parts, the Dover mortuary had disposed of cremated portions in a Virginia landfill for several years.
“We must have an in-depth and detailed accounting of what happened,” said Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.), chairman of the investigative arm of the House Armed Services Committee. “Most importantly, we must ensure that this never happens again.”
Panetta said he was unaware of the landfill-dumping practice and hoped an independent panel of medical experts he has appointed to review the Dover mortuary operations would examine the issue.
Seated next to Panetta at a news conference, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, noted that the mortuary stopped disposing of ashes in the landfill in 2008 and asserted that the practice was “not uncommon” outside the military.
“If you look into how it’s handled routinely in civilian life, there are procedures exactly that way,” he said.
Asked if it was morally objectionable or wrong to dispose of portions of troops’ remains in that manner, Dempsey replied: “I don’t know what right looks like in that regard now that this has manifested itself.”
An association of funeral directors, however, called the Dover mortuary’s landfill-dumping “horrific.”