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Schwartz: Mortuary problems identified, fixed

Dec. 8, 2011 - 09:21PM   |   Last Updated: Dec. 8, 2011 - 09:21PM  |  
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton A. Schwartz, left, speaks Dec. 8 while taping an interview with This Week in Defense News and its host, Vago Muradian. In the interview, Schwartz addressed reports that 274 service members' remains were dumped in landfills by officials from Dover Port Mortuary, Del.
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton A. Schwartz, left, speaks Dec. 8 while taping an interview with This Week in Defense News and its host, Vago Muradian. In the interview, Schwartz addressed reports that 274 service members' remains were dumped in landfills by officials from Dover Port Mortuary, Del. (Thomas Brown / Staff)

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz said he believes the service has found and fixed problems at Dover Port Mortuary and that a Defense Department panel will back up that belief.

Schwartz was responding to new findings, first published Wednesday in The Washington Post, that the incinerated partial remains of at least 274 U.S. service members were dumped in a Virginia landfill before 2008 when the service stopped the practice. Air Force officials said the landfill dumping was concealed from families who had authorized the service to dispose of the remains.

The Air Force has been under fire since last month's release of a scathing Office of Special Counsel report, which found multiple instances of mishandled remains at Dover's Port Mortuary at Dover Air Force Base, Del., through which most fallen troops pass as they are prepared for burial.

The findings prompted several new investigations, including one by a Defense Department panel headed by retired Army Gen. John P. Abizaid, the former commander of U.S. Central Command.

Schwartz said in an interview with vmuradian@militarytimes.com?subject=Question from AirForceTimes.com reader">Vago Muradian that will be aired this weekend on the http://www.defensenewstv.com/">This Week in Defense News program, that the DoD panel investigating mishandled remains at Dover "will validate that [the Air Force's] corrective action, in fact, dealt with the problems that needed to be dealt with."

Schwartz said the Air Force is accountable for its performance at Dover Port Mortuary, and added that while he can't justify what happened until 2008, "what we are talking about here is portions of remains, and that these portions of remains were discovered or identified after the fallen returned to their families for proper burial."

"Clearly, the officials at the mortuary at the time believed it was acceptable to deal with these portions in a manner which occurs in medical surgeries or autopsies," Schwartz said in the interview, conducted Thursday after The Post's report. "I won't justify what happened, but it's important to know that the employees at the mortuary came to the conclusion themselves in 2008 that there was a more dignified way to do this."

Lt. Gen. Darrell Jones, the service's deputy chief of staff for manpower, said during a news briefing Thursday that the Air Force has no plans to notify the families of the 274 service members of which it has records proving their remains were disposed of in a landfill. Jones said the service is uncertain how many other partial remains were dumped prior to 2003.

Jones said those families told the Air Force that they did not want to be notified if additional remains were found and the service will continue to honor those wishes because "to open up that wound would be cruel."

"We didn't go back to the families in 2008 [when the process changed] and we haven't gone back today," Jones said. "These families made a very tough decision not to be notified of subsequently identified remains - to go back and notify them would be going against their wishes."

Since 2008, the service has done one retirement at sea for remains that filled 14 sea salt urns, Jones said.

Jones said a hotline the Air Force established to deal with queries from families regarding their loved ones' remains has received nine calls, one of which came after it was reported that remains had been dumped in a landfill. He said he couldn't be certain if that call was from a family member associated with the remains of the 274 service members that could be identified with records.

But Jones said should any of those families come forward, the Air Force is prepared to apologize and provide as much information about the remains as possible.

"We regret any additional grief that past practices may have caused families," he said. "It causes us great pain to think that we have brought suffering to a family.

"My father wore the uniform, I wear the uniform, my son wears the uniform," Jones said. "We know more than anyone else the pain that a conflict causes when you lose a loved one. If we have done anything to add to that pain, you bet that we are going to apologize."

Some members of Congress said the apologies and promises that the problems have been fixed aren't enough, and called for the Air Force to cooperate with an investigation by the Oversight and Government Reform Committee in the House of Representatives.

Reps. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., and Elijah Cummings, D-Md., issued a joint statement calling on Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to provide "full cooperation and transparency" to the committee.

Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., said he wants leaders held accountable.

Following initial reports that remains had been mishandled, Udall called for responsible personnel at Dover to be fired. He renewed that call in a statement issued Thursday.

"I am increasingly shocked that personnel at Dover Air Force Base failed in their obligation to treat our fallen with the utmost dignity and respect," Udall said in the statement. "This practice was extraordinarily disrespectful to those heroes who made the ultimate sacrifice and now we're learning that even more troops were dishonored than originally reported."

Udall said Panetta should look at the files of every fallen service member who has passed through Dover since 2003 to ensure that the Air Force is reporting the correct number.

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