Air Force Investigates Mortuary At Del. Base

The Air Force says it is investigating gross mismanagement at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, where casualties return to the United States from overseas. Three officials have been disciplined for instances of mishandling of human remains. And military officials say that steps were not taken to correct the problems at the mortuary there, even though officials knew about them. Robert Siegel talks to NPR's Tom Bowman for more.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

There is disturbing news today out of Dover Air Force Base, where the remains of the nation's war dead are returned home. The top officer in the Air Force has announced disciplinary actions against three officials at Dover. They are accused of gross mismanagement at Dover's mortuary, including the loss and mishandling of body parts. NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman joins us now to talk about this troubling and very gruesome story. And, Tom, how did this come to light? And how could have it happened?

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Well, Robert, it came to light from whistleblowers who worked at the Dover mortuary and General Norton Schwartz, the top Air Force officer, says that Air Force and Army investigators looked into this. And he called this gross mismanagement, but he said the supervisors were not fired. A colonel got a letter of reprimand and two civilians were demoted and are still at Dover.

And we asked why they weren't fired and he said, because these were essentially mistakes and not a deliberate act.

SIEGEL: What were these mistakes? What exactly happened?

BOWMAN: Well, it's very, very gruesome and troubling. In two separate incidents in 2009, body parts of service members killed in active duty were lost by the mortuary and then there's another incident that happened in 2010. The arm of a deceased U.S. Marine was basically sawed off so his body could fit into his uniform. And then, beyond that, there were five instances of fetal remains being shipped to Dover from Germany inside plastic pails, which in turn, were placed in non-reinforced cardboard boxes. So it's a very awful story.

SIEGEL: Well, when were the families notified of this?

BOWMAN: The families were only notified over the past weekend and I asked General Schwartz about that and he says, basically, we were constrained by the Office of Special Counsel. They're the independent federal office that handles whistleblowers. Let's listen to what he had to say.

GENERAL NORTON SCHWARTZ: We waited until it was clear that the Office of Special Counsel was going to render their report. We got 48 hours notice and we acted upon that notice.

BOWMAN: But I talked with a special counselor. Her name is Carolyn Lerner. Listen to what she had to say.

CAROLYN LERNER: That's patently false. My staff encouraged Air Force officials as long ago as March 2011 to notify the families of these serious matters. The Air Force could have informed them the minute they found out about the problems. They chose not to.

SIEGEL: Tom, to put it mildly, they're not on the same page. What happens now?

BOWMAN: Well, Carolyn Lerner of the Special Counsel, she's filed her report with the White House and the Armed Services Committee in both the House and the Senate. And she says the Air Force basically has not acknowledged culpability here and she questions whether these new procedures they put into effect at Dover really are sufficient to do the job.

So now, it's up to Congress to determine whether or not this is investigated further and, again, she's filed her report with the House and Senate.

SIEGEL: Tom, was there any indication given of how many such incidents or mistakes were made? Was that it, what you described, or is there more?

BOWMAN: Right. As far as we know, just those incidents that were mentioned. Two incidents in 2009, one in 2010 and then the five fetuses that were sent back from Germany.

SIEGEL: OK. Thank you, Tom.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

SIEGEL: That's NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman.

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