The Washington Post is reporting that for years the Dover Air Force Base mortuary, which handles the bodies of America's war dead, has been burning some troops' body parts and dumping the ashes in a Virginia landfill.
The disclosure follows the results of a year-long federal investigation into the mishandling of remains by the Delaware mortuary. The Air Force announced yesterday that it had disciplined three senior officials for "gross mismanagement" after the mortuary lost portions of troops' remains.
Air Force officials told the Post today that some dead troops' body parts were sent to the landfill from 2003 until 2008 and that the manner of disposal was "typically withheld from the relatives of fallen service members."
The Post reports:
"[Air Force officials] said the procedure was limited to portions of body parts that were unable to be identified at first or were later recovered from the battlefield, and which family members had indicated could be disposed of by the military.
"Lt. Gen. Darrell G. Jones, the Air Force's deputy chief for personnel, said the body parts were first cremated, then incinerated, and then taken to a landfill by a military contractor. He could not explain why both cremation and incineration were necessary, but likened the process to disposing of medical waste.
"Jones also could not estimate how many body parts were handled in this way. 'That was the common practice at the time and since then our practices have improved,' he said."
Jones told the Post the mortuary changed its policy in June 2008 and that now the cremated remains are buried at sea.
As NPR's Tom Bowman reported for Morning Edition, the incidents of mishandled remains came to light through whistle-blowers at the mortuary. Twice in 2009, portions of human remains were lost. And in 2010, mortuary employees sawed off the arm of a dead Marine so they could fit him in his uniform and put him in a casket.
After an investigation, the Air Force inspector determined no laws or regulations had been violated. Three senior officials were disciplined, but no one was fired.
In reviewing the Air Force's probe, the independent Office of Special Counsel sharply disagreed with some of the findings. It submitted its own report yesterday to the White House and to the House and Senate armed services committees.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has asked for a separate investigation.
Some of the whistle-blowers told their story tonight on the CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley.
[Stephanie Federico is an NPR.org editor.]