James G. Parsons Sr. was a military autopsy embalming technician working at the Air Force’s Dover mortuary when, on Feb. 2, 2010, he was assigned to prepare the body of a Marine who had been killed by a buried bomb in Afghanistan a few days before.
He had “extensive trauma” to his lower legs, Parsons later recalled. “Some of his lower legs were missing. He had extensive trauma to his left arm.”
Parsons, 53, said that the Marine already had been embalmed and that what was left of his left arm was fixed at a 90-degree angle in the process.
The handling of the Marine’s body was among the most shocking elements of reports Tuesday about the treatment of the remains of war dead at the Dover mortuary. Veterans, members of Congress and relatives of those killed in action expressed outrage about the incidents.
Parsons said he believed that, if the arm had been left in place, the Marine’s face could potentially have been viewed at a funeral. The rest of his body could have been wrapped so the damage would be concealed.
“I’m a soldier, or I was a soldier,” said Parsons, an Army veteran who worked at the mortuary for several years. “If you send me home in my uniform and I’ve got no limbs, to let my family see me like that would be very disrespectful.”
But Parson’s said his supervisor, Quinton R. “Randy” Keel, who served as division director at the mortuary, wanted the Marine’s body placed in a uniform — something that was difficult with the arm fixed in place.
After some conversation, Parsons said, Keel ordered the arm cut off.
“I’m not going to do that,” Parsons said he told his supervisor. Keel declined to comment Tuesday through an Air Force spokesman. Attempts to reach Keel directly were not successful.
Parsons said another technician did the cutting, and Parsons was instructed to place the limb inside the inner plastic burial garment containing the Marine’s body. “I wrapped it cotton,” he said, and followed orders.
“What I’m thinking is: ‘This is totally wrong,’ ” Parsons said. He said he had never seen anything like it done. “I'd consider it to be mutilation, especially if that’s my son.”
Parsons believed the Marine’s arm could have been pressed against his body and then encased in a so-called “full body wrap,” but not in a uniform.
“It’s immoral,” he said. “It’s disrespectful, so disrespectful. This guy laid down his life for his country, and then we go and treat him like he’s a piece of meat. ‘I can do whatever I want with him.’ It's just wrong.”
Parsons said the Marine’s body was then dressed in a uniform, and the empty sleeve was pinned.
Keel was demoted in August and has been assigned to another job at Dover Air Force Base. An Air Force investigation concluded Tuesday that Keel was right to have the arm cut because the Marine’s family wanted him buried in dress uniform. Keel no longer works in the mortuary.
But the Office of Special Counsel, an independent federal watchdog, noted Tuesday that investigators concluded that Keel had falsified records, tried to fire two workers for cooperating with the probe and gave a version of events that were “wholly inconsistent with the facts.” The watchdog agency also criticized Keel’s decision to have the arm removed as improper.
Parsons said he was one of those Keel tried to fire after Parsons filed a formal complaint about the incident with the Office of Special Counsel.
“I believe that somebody had to know what had happened,” Parsons said. “And I believe that the person that gave the order to cut that bone off should be held accountable.”
Parsons said Keel ordered his dismissal in September 2010 after Parsons made insulting remarks to a Hispanic co-worker and after a female worker complained about an R-rated movie Parsons and others were watching in a workroom.
Parsons does not dispute those allegations but says they were a pretense for firing him amid a sensitive investigation. He apologized to those he had offended, Parsons said. The Air Force rescinded the termination three months later.
“I’m happy that it’s over,” Parsons said Tuesday. “I do want to say the problems have been corrected. We’re taking care of the remains like they should be now and we’ve always strived to.”