Yesterday was the 236th birthday of the United States Marine Corps (Semper Fidelis, with a Bravo Zulu and Charlie Mike in there for good measure). Today is Veterans Day.
Like most veterans, I will gather with my comrades today for special events in honor of those among us who, at some point in their life, made out a check to “The People of The United States of America” for an amount “up to and including my life.” But, in the back of my mind, I’m going to be thinking about how my government has once again reneged on its promise to those who put on the uniform and served.
If you haven’t heard, I can’t say I’m entirely surprised, but Tuesday, the U.S. Air Force released a report capping a year-long investigation of how the Dover Air Force Base mortuary mishandled the remains of service members. According to a statement from the Air Force, the practice of cremating the remains and dumping the ashes in a Virginia landfill had been going on for years.
The details of the situation at Dover AFB were outlined Tuesday in a report by The Washington Post, as well.
The mission at Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations is to “provide reverence, dignity, honor and respect to the fallen and care, service and support to their families.” While it is an Air Force operation, it is staffed by members of all branches of the military, as well as National Guard, Reserve and civilian staff.
And, since the initiation of joint hostilities in both Iraq and Afghanistan, AFMAO’s mission has become increasingly more difficult. Since 2003, it has prepared more than 6,300 fallen military members for return to their loved ones.
AFMAO operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and routinely deals with the horrific trauma of war. That much I get and respect. What I don’t understand, however, is how this has been candy-coated and, more or less, swept under the rug by the military.
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton A. Schwartz said that while the situation was certainly bad, no one intentionally did anything wrong. Instead, he blamed “gross mismanagement” for the way service members’ remains were mishandled:
“Though the findings concluded remains of our fallen were handled with reverence, dignity, honor and respect, the investigations resulted in a determination that three senior supervisors’ actions and inactions, though not willful, constituted ‘gross mismanagement’ for failing to respond appropriately to clear indications that procedures were inadequate to prevent loss of accountability of disassociated remains (referred to as portions) at the Dover Port Mortuary.
“Gross mismanagement is an action or inaction that is blatant and creates a substantial risk or significant adverse impact on the agency’s ability to accomplish its mission. This did not constitute a finding that AFMAO was mismanaged as a general matter, but was limited to the leadership’s failure to respond appropriately to specific accountability issues related to portions.”
I don’t know about you, but where I come from, that’s some Major League butt-covering. Perhaps I’m just a little too sensitive, being a veteran myself, but U.S. Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner, who investigates complaints like these, agrees.
She said that “while the Air Force has made many changes… including requiring family permission prior to significantly altering remains and putting in place extensive procedures to improve the handling and accountability of remains, it has not taken sufficient disciplinary action against the officials responsible for wrongdoing.” She also noted “the Air Force delayed notifying the families involved until publication of the OSC report was imminent.”
As reported in the WaPo article, Gari-Lynn Smith, the wife of one service member whose remains were dumped in the landfill after his 2006 death in Iraq, was appalled and disgusted by the way the Air Force acted. The article stated she did not learn about the mishandling of her husband’s remains until this spring, just before the OSC report was released (in May).
“My only peace of mind in losing my husband was that he was taken to Dover and that he was handled with dignity, love, respect and honor,” Smith said. “That was completely shattered for me when I was told that he was thrown in the trash.”
She said she only learned in April that part of her husband’s remains had been dumped in the landfill in a letter from an AFMAO official. The letter misidentified her husband, a 16-year Army veteran who volunteered for hazardous duty defusing roadside bombs, with the wrong first name.
So much for dignity, honor, and respect, I guess.
Lerner is currently investigating claims the Air Force retaliated against three staff members who were acting as whistleblowers — staff members who clearly didn’t feel AFMAO was handling fallen service members’ remains with “reverence, dignity, honor and respect.” So, let’s look at what Gen. Schwartz might have meant by that.
In a separate WaPo article, James Parsons Sr., an embalmer at AFMAO, blew the whistle when he was instructed to saw an arm off the body of a Marine who had been killed by an IED in Afghanistan in February of this year. Parsons, himself and Army veteran, refused to follow the order and was later the target of retribution — including an attempt to get him fired — over the matter.
“What I’m thinking is: ‘This is totally wrong’… I’d consider it to be mutilation, especially if that’s my son,” he said. “It’s immoral… 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.”
The WaPo article says the officer responsible for the Marine’s arm being removed was demoted and reassigned elsewhere at Dover AFB, away from AFMAO. But the officers overseeing the mortuary operation only received reprimands and remain in command, according to Lerner’s report.
Her report to President Barack Obama also enumerated two instances in which service members’ body parts were lost while being handled by AFMAO personnel. She also reported five instances in which the remains of five stillborn military dependents were mishandled at Dover AFB.
The WaPo also obtained Air Force documents that identified the landfill used for disposing the remains, which was located in King George County, Va. Officials with Waste Management, the company that operates the landfill, said they were not informed of the origin of the ashes, nor was it made aware of the process AFMAO was implementing.
So, where do you suppose the American Legion, the largest veterans’ service organization in the United States, weighs in on this matter? The answer, you would think, is pretty obvious: they’re outraged, right? Well, if they are, the National Command is strangely silent on the matter.
But, not everyone is staying mum about it. Richard L. DeNoyer, National Commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, found a way to express his outrage.
“The VFW demands that the Departments of Defense and the Air Force get to the bottom of this, to hold accountable those directly responsible, and to ensure necessary controls are in-place and followed to never permit such disrespectful incidents to ever occur again,” he said. “What happened at Dover AFB exceeds on many levels the nationwide anger that resulted from reports of mistreated wounded at the former Walter Reed Army Medical Center in 2007 and reports of lost or misplaced graves at Arlington National Cemetery in 2009. You only get one chance to return our fallen warriors to their families with all the dignity and respect they deserve from a grateful nation — and that mortuary affairs unit failed.”
I don’t think “failed” even begins to cover it, but I don’t think words can completely describe this nightmare. I’ve been trying to find a word that would describe the rage and anger I’m feeling as a veteran for two days now.
I simply can’t.
The closest I can come to it are a couple of old military phrases, neither of which are appropriate for polite conversation. The first one starts with “cluster” and the other has been shortened over the years to “snafu.”
I’ll let those of you who are good at Googling figure out the rest.