Thursday, December 8, 2011
The remains of at least 274 American troops were dumped in a Virginia landfill during a four-year period ending in 2008 — far more than the military originally acknowledged, according to a report published by The Washington Post.
The newspaper said the incinerated partial remains were sent to the King George County Landfill in Virginia. The report was based on database information at the Dover Air Base mortuary, where the remains of most war dead return.
"In many cases, what happens is that the morgue at Dover isn't able to identify all the remains until after a funeral or until the body is returned to the family," Craig Whitlock, one of two journalists who reported the story for the Post told NPR.
"What happened in these cases is that the family had signed paperwork asking the military to dispose of these subsequent remains in a dignified manner. What happened was the Air Force would have them cremated and then incinerated, and then have the ashes taken to a landfill."
As NPR's Tom Bowman reported last month, only a few sets of partial remains were thought to have been involved when the Air Force announced it was investigating the mortuary for "gross mismanagement."
The Air Force had previously said it was unable to estimate the number of troops whose remains might have been sent to a landfill. But military records showed that identifiable remains from at least 274 military personnel were disposed of in that manner, along with nearly 1,800 unidentified remains, according to the newspaper.
The military also has acknowledged that the practice went on at least from 2004 to 2008. But Whitlock cited evidence that the practice might have been going on much earlier.
"Their first records of it occurring were back in 2004, but we also have emails and other correspondence from mortuary officials that indicate this was the practice going back to the '90s," he told NPR.
Since 2008, "they have buried the ashes at sea," he said.
Whitlock described the practice as "off-the-books" because military policy or regulations did not formally authorize it. Dover's mortuary has handled the remains of more than 6,300 troops since 2001.
"Most people in the military had no idea this was going on, even high-level, senior members of the Pentagon," he said.
In some cases, such as those involving airplane crashes, a DNA test was unable to ascertain who the remains belonged to. Whitlock said that "these were also, unfortunately, disposed of in the same manner."
The report in the Post said that military officials said the incidents were the result of the strain of handling so many corpses coming back from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"There is nothing more sacred, there is nothing that is a more profound obligation than treating our fallen with reverence, dignity and respect," Gen. Norton A. Schwartz, the Air Force chief of staff, who took responsibility for the problems, was quoted in the Post as saying.
The newspaper investigation was prompted by a war widow whose husband was a member of a bomb disposal unit in Iraq until he was killed in 2006.
"She started asking questions the next year wondering what happened to the remains of her husband," Whitlock said. "It took her four years to get any kind of answer from the Air Force, which acknowledged that some of those remains ended up in a landfill.
"The Air Force said, 'We don't know how long this went on,' and that it ended in 2008, and that since then, they had buried the ashes at sea," Whitlock said. "They said it was too difficult to go through their files to determine how many people had been affected by this."