November 10, 2011

NOTHING CAN COMPENSATE for the losses suffered by the families of the men and women who die in service to America. Of some comfort, though, is the knowledge that these fallen sons and daughters, husbands and wives, mothers and fathers are valued and honored by their country — and not just on the days that are set aside in their name. That is why the latest revelations of callous disregard by the military — this time in mishandling troops’ remains — are so disturbing.

Federal investigators this week revealed “gross mismanagement” at the Dover Air Force Base mortuary, where the remains of those killed overseas are received. Complaints from whistleblowers revealed a sloppy system in which body parts were lost or improperly identified, and families of the deceased were misled. The Air Force disciplined but did not fire three mortuary supervisors, an action that was found wanting by an independent watchdog agency as well as some members of Congress.

Most distressing was the acknowledgment by Air Force officials — in response to pointed questions from The Post’s Craig Whitlock and Greg Jaffe — of the procedure employed from 2003 to 2008 to dispose of troops’ remains: cremating them and dumping the ashes in a Virginia landfill. The practice, thankfully discontinued in favor of the more appropriate burial at sea, was limited to fragments or portions of body parts, which family members had agreed the military could dispose of. One official likened the practice to the disposal of medical waste, but one stricken widow told The Post it felt to her as though her husband were being treated like trash.

The revelations about Dover call to mind problems uncovered not long ago at Arlington National Cemetery, in which officials mishandled and misidentified bodies and graves, and the deplorable conditions at the former Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Each case is different, and in our view nothing approaches the horror of inadequate or substandard medical care for America’s wounded. But what these cases share is a lack of respect shown to those who deserve far better.

A small proportion of Americans are carrying a great load for the nation as they serve in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. The least of today’s Veterans Day resolutions ought to be to remedy that disrespect.