The Office of Special Counsel disputed Schwartz’s account. The agency said relatives of fallen service members should have been notified right away, but the Air Force resisted.
Mark Cohen, the deputy special counsel, called Schwartz’s suggestion that the Office of Special Counsel was responsible for the delay “patently false,” adding: “The Air Force has shown as much, if not more, reverence for its image as it has for the families of the fallen.”
In addition to the missing body parts, Parsons and two other whistleblowers alleged that the mortuary kept shoddy records and endangered public health by improperly handling a corpse thought to be infected with tuberculosis.
They also complained that the mortuary permitted an Army hospital in Germany to ship fetal remains in reused cardboard boxes back to the United States for burial instead of in aluminum transfer cases.
The Air Force inspector general confirmed many of the facts in the complaints and documented a pattern of “gross mismanagement.” But the inspector general determined that there was not enough evidence to prove the three supervisors had personally broken any regulations.
As a result, the supervisors received relatively lenient punishments. Col. Robert H. Edmondson, who served as mortuary commander from January 2009 to October 2010, was issued a letter of reprimand — usually a career-ending punishment for an officer. He is still on active duty but has been reassigned.
Quinton R. “Randy” Keel, a civilian who served as division director at the mortuary, was demoted in August. He has been assigned to another job at Dover Air Force Base and no longer works in the mortuary.
The Office of Special Counsel chided the Air Force for not taking stricter action. It noted that investigators concluded Keel had falsified records, tried to fire two employees for cooperating with the probe and gave a version of events that was “wholly inconsistent with the facts.”
The top civilian deputy of the mortuary, Trevor Dean, also still works at Dover. The Air Force said he voluntarily accepted a transfer to a lesser position in September.
Dean, Edmondson and Keel all declined a request for comment through an Air Force spokesman.
Troubles first surfaced in April 2009 when technicians noticed something amiss while conducting an inventory of body parts stored in a walk-in refrigerator.
A sealed plastic bag that was supposed to contain a shattered ankle from a soldier killed in Afghanistan was empty, according to the investigations. The ankle had been stored in the refrigerator seven months earlier, but the plastic bag was slit at the bottom and a frantic search turned up no sign of the remains.
About the same time, supervisors learned that a similar problem had occurred three months earlier, when two plastic bags containing body parts were also found slit and emptied. In that incident, technicians found what they believed were the missing remains in trays on storage racks underneath the bags.
Another empty plastic bag was found in July 2009. Missing was a four-inch-long piece of flesh recovered from an F-15 fighter jet crash in Afghanistan; two airmen had died and medical examiners weren’t certain to whom the missing body part belonged. It was never located.
Another problem surfaced in January 2010 when a Marine killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan arrived at the mortuary. Although his body was shattered from the waist down, his family requested that he be buried in his dress uniform.
Morticians tried to honor the request but couldn’t fit the Marine into his uniform or a coffin because a section of his left arm was sticking out after trauma suffered in an explosion in Afghanistan. The report from the Office of Special Counsel said the arm was fixed at a 90-degree angle and could not be moved into alignment during embalming.
Keel ordered a mortician to saw off the bone and place it in a bag in the casket. Some technicians at Dover objected, saying that it amounted to “mutilation” and that the family should have been consulted.
The Air Force inspector general concluded that Keel did the right thing because he was attempting to honor the family’s wishes.
Investigators from the Office of Special Counsel, however, disagreed, saying the case was inconsistent with “the highest standards in the funeral service profession.”
Staff writers Michael E. Ruane and Christian Davenport and staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.