In 2003, as Dover expected the first wave of war dead from Iraq to arrive, Zwicharowksi told reporters that service members “are very particular about their uniforms,” and that employees of the mortuary see their work as a noble calling.
“It’s an honorable mission,” he said, “and we take great pride in what we do.”
Eight years years later, however, the mortuary branch chief wrote the Office of the Special Counsel to say that Dover was in “a spiraling decline in the sacred care of our fallen over the past few years.”
He said that leadership at the mortuary “had very little or no experience in this extremely demanding, challenging ‘zero defect’ mission. . . . Leadership clearly avoided responsibility by not addressing the issue, and it was as if they were hoping it would go away. It did not go away.”
The results of an 18-month Air Force investigation released last week were reminiscent of the problems that federal investigators discovered last year at Arlington National Cemetery, which included mismarked and unmarked graves, urns that had been dug up and dumped in a dirt pile and millions of dollars wasted on contracts that produced nothing. At Dover, investigators found that two service members’ body parts — a soldier’s ankle and a piece of airman’s flesh — had disappeared. Dover officials also acknowledged sawing off a Marine’s arm, without informing the family, so that his body would fit in his casket.
In addition to those problems, The Washington Post reported last week that the mortuary had cremated some service members’ body parts and disposed of them in a Virginia landfill. That practice was stopped in 2008. Now the ashes are buried at sea.
Beyond the mishandling of remains, there are other similarities in the scandals that have tainted two of the nation’s most sacred places. Both unfolded slowly, out of public view for years. Both were exposed by whistleblowers who spoke up and allegedly faced retribution for doing so. Both sparked national outrage and federal investigations, which resulted in punishments and leadership changes — but also charges that the Pentagon failed to fully hold those responsible to account.
Now both are trying to restore their reputations and reassure furious veterans, service members and members of Congress that they will never allow such errors to happen again. Meanwhile, Arlington and Dover continue to face investigations .
Questions of retaliation, accountability
In its own report about the problems at Dover, the Office of Special Counsel, a federal watchdog agency, harshly criticized the Air Force’s investigation, saying that several of its “findings are not supported by the evidence presented and thus do not appear reasonable .”