Gloria Crothers made the sad pilgrimage to Dover Air Force Base in 2009 to see her son, who was killed in Afghanistan, return to American soil.
Like hundreds of families before her, she watched the short, quiet ceremony, in which white-gloved troops carried a transfer case bearing her son’s remains from a cargo aircraft.
On Tuesday, the base in Delaware became the latest of the nation’s hallowed military places to be sullied by charges of mismanagement and scandal.
“How can you not know what body parts belong to what soldier?” said Crothers, of Conowingo, Md. “That is very disrespectful to the person who just sacrificed their life for the country. This is not acceptable. It’s just not.”
Officials at the Dover mortuary did not let her see the body of her son, Sgt. Michael Heede Jr., saying it was too damaged. She protested, because her son’s fellow Marines had told her that his body was still intact. Seeing any part of him, even just a limb, would help her accept his death.
“I know every tattoo he had,” she said.
Crothers’s son wasn’t one of the 14 cases of abuse at the mortuary, but as with many relatives who have lost loved ones, the news of the problems at Dover only heightened her concerns.
“I had doubts about my son being in that coffin, and now I have more doubts,” she said.
All three are places where military families carry out mostly private vigils.
Each of them — an airfield, a now-shuttered hospital and a cemetery — have become part of the country’s civic religion. Presidents visit them to show that they do not make life-or-death decisions without being sensitive to the costs of war.
Americans regularly profess their admiration for the military’s sacrifices. But the problems at these three consecrated sites have provoked questions about the nation’s commitment to honor its war wounded and dead.
“It is disturbing that at places where the rubber really meets the road we screw it up,” said Andrew Bacevich, a retired Army colonel and a history professor at Boston University whose son was killed in Iraq. “There is a gap between our professed regard for the military and how soldiers are treated.”
Then-Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates fired the secretary of the Army and the general in charge of Walter Reed in 2007 after The Washington Post exposed the dismal state of treatment for wounded troops there. At Arlington Cemetery, top officials mishandled remains and wasted millions in botched contracts. The cemetery is still trying to account for every grave.
The failings at these three places contrast sharply with the care and attention that the nation’s fallen receive from their fellow troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Today’s wars are unusual in the manner in which each dead service member is honored. Soldiers and Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan hold memorial services for each comrade. At home, military units erect monuments bearing the names of their fallen troops.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, keeps a box of laminated cards on his desk with the name, picture and home town of every soldier killed under his command in Iraq in 2003 and 2004.
Such practices, which are relatively common today, were unthinkable in earlier wars.
“People take extraordinary care in the field to honor the dead,” said Eliot Cohen, a historian at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. “It would be wrong to conclude there is a callousness with regard to war casualties.”
Dover has taken on its sacred status only in recent years. During World War II, many Americans were buried in overseas cemeteries. During the Vietnam War, the American dead arrived home at airfields nationwide.
It wasn’t until the 1991 Persian Gulf War that Dover became the primary port of entry for the fallen.
Relatives of the deceased visited the base only sporadically until 2009, when the Obama administration allowed the media, with families’ permission, to cover what the military terms “dignified transfer ceremonies.” The Pentagon began to pay for the families to travel to Dover.
The Air Force refurbished the dilapidated waiting room near the runway for the bereaved, outfitting it with new leather couches.
Former president George W. Bush, who regularly visited Walter Reed and Arlington Cemetery, never went to Dover for a transfer ceremony. President Obama made two high-profile visits to the airfield. His first trip was a predawn journey in the fall of 2009 as he weighed whether to deepen the United States’ commitment in Afghanistan with the addition of as many as 33,000 troops.
His second trip, this year, followed a helicopter crash in Afghanistan’s Wardak province that killed 30 Americans.
In the gap between those two visits, hundreds of families drove and flew to Dover to watch their loved ones return home. For them, the lapses at the mortuary hit hard.
When Shane Wilhelm went to Dover after his son, Army Pvt. Keiffer Wilhelm, was killed in 2009, everything appeared to be run professionally. There was a somber ceremony involving a color guard. A chaplain said a prayer. And his son’s transfer case was moved from the plane to the mortuary.
“We even have a video of it,” Wilhelm said. “To hear this now, it’s like, you’ve got to be kidding me.”