By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 10, 2008
The U.S. military has, since 2001, cremated some of the remains of American service members killed in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere at a Delaware facility that also cremates pets, a practice that ended yesterday when the Pentagon banned the arrangement.
The facility, located in an industrial park near Dover Air Force Base, has cremated about 200 service members, manager David A. Bose estimated last night. It uses separate crematories a few feet apart to cremate humans and animals, he added, insisting that there had "not been any people gone through the pet crematory."
Pentagon officials said they do not think that human remains and animal remains were ever commingled at the facility. "We have absolutely no evidence whatsoever at this point that any human remains were at all ever mistreated," Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said at a news conference hastily convened last night.
Regardless, the Pentagon will no longer permit crematories not located with funeral homes to handle the remains of U.S. troops, defense officials said.
Officials said they do not know the number of service members cremated at the Kent County facility, which is identified on a billboard as Friends Forever Pet Cremation Service.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates found "the site and signage insensitive and entirely inappropriate for the dignified treatment of our fallen," Morrell said. "The families of the fallen have the secretary's deepest apology," he said.
"The secretary believes that it is inappropriate, even if though permissible under the rules and regulations, to cremate our fallen, our heroes, in a facility that also cremates pets," he added.
The revelation came to light when an Army officer who works at the Pentagon traveled to Delaware on Thursday to attend the cremation of a military comrade. Offended to discover that the facility was labeled as a pet crematory, the officer sent an e-mail late Thursday night to superiors at the Pentagon that included a photograph of the signage.
It soon rocketed to the attention of Gates, who directed David S.C. Chu, the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, to conduct "a comprehensive review of existing DOD policies and practices governing the cremation and handling of remains of U.S. service members," Morrell said.
Army leaders, meanwhile, briefed members of Congress about the e-mail yesterday morning. The lawmakers, an Army spokeswoman said, "were as concerned as we were," and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) subsequently sent a letter to Gates, "raising the same concerns the secretary of defense had when he learned of it from the Army."
Bose said the Army officer "got in a huff because he saw the sign and went back and really stirred up the pot." The officer attended the cremation because no relatives of the deceased soldier were present, Bose said, adding that the officer left without speaking to him or asking any questions.
Bose said that Capitol Crematory and Friends Forever Pet Cremation Service owns one pet crematory that is square and too small for most humans, who are cremated in two larger, rectangular crematories in the same room.
The Air Force has no crematory facility at Dover Air Force Base, where the Dover port mortuary handles the remains of all U.S. service members who die overseas. As a result, in 2001 Air Force officials contracted with two local funeral homes to perform cremations, including with Torbert Funeral Chapels and Crematories, which oversees the facility managed by Bose, and another crematory that is located with a funeral home.
Lt. Gen. Frank G. Klotz, director of the Air Force Staff, said he does not know whether any military officer had ever inspected the contracted crematories. "That is something which we need to take a look at," he said.
Typically, Bose said, service members would drop off remains at his crematory after he signed the paperwork for them, and would return the next day to sign for and pick up the cremains.
That would be contrary to the normal procedure described by Klotz, in which the military provides an escort for all service members killed overseas during transport to the United States, and again after "medical processing" at the Dover mortuary as the deceased returns home for interment.
Air Force Secretary Michael W. Wynne directed yesterday that the service "cease using the off-site crematory, use only crematory facilities that are co-located with licensed funeral homes, and have a military presence during the off-base process at the funeral home facilities," Morrell said.
Military officials said they are concerned that the new requirements, such as that the crematory be located with a funeral home, could slow the cremation process.
"Dover is a relatively small city . . . so there is a limitation in terms of the number of facilities that could do that," he said.
Even the suggestion of impropriety with cremations touched a raw nerve at the Pentagon.
Military culture instills that showing respect for the fallen is an extremely important and solemn duty. Funerary rituals such as removing flags from military caskets and presenting them to the deceased's family are carried out meticulously, while other demonstrations of respect include personally delivering news of the loss of a loved one to the next of kin.
The officer who went to Delaware did so "to be a physical presence, to be a part of that bond that is so unique to this warrior ethos in our profession," Lt. Gen. David H. Huntoon Jr., director of the Army Staff, said. Instead, he said, the officer found conditions that he considered "insensitive."