Military officials said the incidents resulted from the strain of handling thousands of dead bodies, some with gruesome injuries that made it difficult to prepare remains for burial.
But the sloppy handling of troops’ remains at Dover painfully undercut the military’s commitment to treat war dead with the utmost honor. “There is nothing more sacred, there is nothing that is a more profound obligation than treating our fallen with reverence, dignity and respect,” said Gen. Norton A. Schwartz, the Air Force chief of staff, who took responsibility for the problems.
The Air Force disciplined but did not fire the mortuary commander and two other senior officials. Some members of Congress called the punishments inadequate, and an independent federal watchdog agency said investigators should have pushed harder to assign blame.
The Air Force and the Army both investigated the complaints about Dover. But the Office of Special Counsel, a watchdog group that receives complaints from whistleblowers and protects them against reprisals, criticized the Air Force’s handling of the situation in unusually sharp language.
In a letter, agency head Carolyn Lerner said the service displayed a pattern of “failure to acknowledge culpability for wrongdoing,” adding that it had managed to “stop just short of accepting accountability.”
Her office said one mortuary official was “untruthful” and tried to obstruct the investigation by firing a whistleblower.
One of the whistleblowers agreed. “The Air Force basically tried to make the Air Force not look too bad,” said James G. Parsons Sr., an autopsy and embalming technician. “They did try to cover it up.”
Schwartz said the Air Force decided not to fire the three mortuary supervisors because “while their performance did not meet standards, this was not a deliberate act.” He also said the Air Force took into account the emotional stress of caring for the remains of thousands of troops killed in battle. “Notwithstanding their faults, this was difficult work.”
The grisly findings at Dover echoed a similar scandal at another hallowed repository for the military’s dead, Arlington National Cemetery. An Army investigation last year documented cases of misidentified remains at Arlington, dug-up urns that had been dumped in a dirt pile and botched contracts worth millions of dollars. The Army Criminal Investigation Command and the FBI are now conducting a criminal probe there.
As news spread of the problems at Dover, Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), a member of the Veterans Affairs Committee, said he didn’t understand why the Air Force continued to employ the three supervisors. “Why weren’t they fired?” Tester wrote Tuesday in a letter to Air Force Secretary Michael B. Donley.