- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 10, 2011

Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta on Thursday ordered new reviews into mismanagement at the military’s national mortuary. He said he wants the Air Force to determine if there were reprisals against whistle-blowers and if those who oversaw remains of fallen heroes were disciplined adequately.

On Tuesday, Mr. Panetta ordered the Defense Health Board, made up of outside medical experts, to review operations at the Dover, Del., Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operation after the Air Force inspector general found lapses in the handling of four sets of remains.

In his first press conference since the report, the defense secretary said he ordered more reviews in response to concerns from another federal agency.

The Office of Special Counsel, which protects whistle-blowers, concluded there were reprisals against two of three morgue employees. It also questioned whether the Air Force was tough enough on the mortuary’s managers, and Mr. Panetta ordered Air Force Secretary Michael Donley to do a review.

The military places great emphasis on the proper handling of those who paid the “ultimate sacrifice.” It demands utmost respect as escorted remains are transferred from a war zone to Dover for funeral preparation, then in flag-draped caskets to the hometown for burial with full honors.

The Pentagon says the Dover morgue’s 24-hour operation has prepared more than 6,300 remains since 2003.

“This is one of the department’s most sacred responsibilities,” Mr. Panetta said. “None of us will be satisfied until we have proven to the families of our fallen heroes that we have taken every step possible to protect the honor and dignity that their loved ones richly deserve.”

The Air Force inspector general found that in two cases, the morgue could not account for all body parts that came to Dover, even though the families received remains.

In another case, a Marine’s arm was severed to fit his remains into a uniform. The family was not notified.

“Having been to Dover, I consider this a sacred place with a sacred responsibility,” Mr. Panetta said. “And it is a place that must meet the highest standards for caring for the remains of our fallen heroes. We can do no less.”

The Air Force found no intentional misconduct.

Gen. Norton Schwartz, Air Force chief of staff, appeared at a Senate hearing Thursday on a separate issue, but was grilled by senators on how discipline was meted out.

“There clearly were unacceptable mistakes made,” the four-star general said. “Whether they constitute wrongdoing is another matter entirely.

“And when you look at a situation like this, you look at the facts of the case, as an attorney might say. You look at the context in which the event or the mistakes occurred. And you also consider the demands that are placed on individuals and organizations.”

The Air Force disciplined three officials, including the commander at the time, Col. Robert H. Edmondson. He received a formal reprimand, effectively ending his career, and he may not take another command.

“This is not a trivial sanction,” Gen. Schwartz told senators.

Two civilians, the deputy commander and mortuary director, were demoted.

The three whistle-blowers spoke to CBS News. One, Mary Ellen Spera, whose job is to keep track of thousands of different body pieces, discovered a piece of an ankle went missing from a plastic bag.

“Working at Dover, it’s like you get a train wreck every single day,” she said.

When morgue officials found out the three were filing complaints, the officials fired one and put another on administrative leave. The whistle-blowers are now back on the job after the Office of Special Counsel intervened.

Said Mr. Panetta: “I want to make certain that we have taken all appropriate disciplinary action here … . We have to send a clear signal to the American people that these kinds of actions that took place there cannot happen again.”

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