WASHINGTON (AP) — The Pentagon is launching a drive to reassure members of the military and their families that flaws in the handling of human remains at the Dover military mortuary — including two instances of lost body parts — have been fixed.
That effort faces obstacles, including assertions by an independent federal investigative agency that the Air Force, which runs the mortuary, has not yet faced up to all the faults in Dover‘s operations.
After the Air Force on Tuesday revealed the results of its investigation into mishandling of remains at the Dover, Del., facility, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta directed a special review at the mortuary, to be completed within 60 days.
“Let me make very clear to the families of our fallen heroes that every step will be taken to protect the honor and dignity that their loved ones richly deserve,” Mr. Panetta said in a written statement.
Three mortuary supervisors have been punished for what the Air Force called “gross mismanagement,” but no one was fired in a grisly case reminiscent of the scandalous mishandling and misidentifying of remains at Arlington National Cemetery.
The Air Force, which runs the mortuary, acknowledged failures while insisting it made the right decision in not informing families linked to the missing body parts until last weekend — months after it completed a probe of 14 sets of allegations lodged by three members of the mortuary staff.
Gen. Norton Schwartz, the Air Force chief of staff, told a Pentagon news conference tha the and the service’s top civilian, Michael Donley, are ultimately responsible for what happens at Dover and for its mistakes.
“There’s no escaping it,” Gen. Schwartz said.
However, an independent federal investigative agency, the Office of Special Counsel, said the Air Force had fallen short on accountability. That office, which forwarded the original whistle-blower allegations to the Pentagon in May and July 2010 and reviewed the subsequent Air Force investigative report, faulted it for taking an overly narrow view of what went wrong at Dover between 2008 and 2010.
“Several of the Air Force’s findings are not supported by the evidence presented and thus do not appear reasonable,” the special counsel's office said. “In these instances the report demonstrates a pattern of the Air Force’s failure to acknowledge culpability for wrongdoing relating to the treatment of remains.”
Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner said her office is investigating allegations by the three whistle-blowers that the Air Force retaliated against them in several ways, including an attempt to fire one of them.
The three whistle-blowers still work at Dover. They are James Parsons, an embalming/autopsy technician; Mary Ellen Spera, a mortuary inspector; and William Zwicharowski, a senior mortuary inspector.
There is no suggestion of criminal wrongdoing at Dover, and the Air Force said it found no evidence that those faulted at Dover had deliberately mishandled any remains. They attributed the mistakes largely to a breakdown in procedures and a failure to fix problems that had been building over time.
As gruesome as the revelations appear, Gen. Schwartz acknowledged that it’s possible that mistakes also were made before 2008, during a period when U.S. troops were killed at even higher rates in Iraq. Other Air Force officials said on Monday they knew of no prior cases of mishandled remains at Dover.
“I cannot certify with certainty that prior performance met our standard of perfection,” Gen. Schwartz told reporters.