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Panetta orders review of mishandled war dead

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta calls for a review of why cremated body parts were dumped in a landfill and to assess the disciplining of three officials at the Pentagon's main mortuary.

November 10, 2011|By David S. Cloud, Washington Bureau
  • Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's moves represent an about-face: Two days ago he commended the Air Force for the thoroughness of its investigation into mismanagement of the mortuary at Dover Air Force Base and said he supported the disciplinary actions taken.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's moves represent an about-face:… (Jonathan Ernst, Reuters )

Reporting from Washington — Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, stung by disclosures that the Pentagon's main mortuary had mishandled American war dead from Iraq and Afghanistan, ordered a review Thursday of why some cremated body parts were dumped in a landfill prior to 2008.

At a Pentagon news conference, Panetta also said he had ordered Air Force Secretary Michael B. Donley to assess the disciplining of three officials at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware who were in charge when partial remains from several deceased service members were apparently lost.

The moves represented an about-face for Panetta, who two days ago commended the Air Force for the "thoroughness" of its investigation into mismanagement of the mortuary at Dover and said he supported the "disciplinary actions taken."

Panetta said he was unaware at the time, however, that mortuary officials had routinely used a landfill to dispose of cremated body parts that were unidentifiable or that had been recovered on the battlefield after other remains had been returned to next of kin for burial.

Officials at the Dover mortuary stopped the landfill dumping, which was first reported in the Washington Post, in 2008 and began disposing of such partial remains at sea.

"I know they've changed that procedure now, but nevertheless, it's something we should look at," Panetta said.

Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at the news conference that cremation of unidentified or partial remains, and their disposal in landfills, was "not uncommon elsewhere in the medical community outside the military."

Gen. Norton Schwartz, the Air Force chief of staff, said at a congressional hearing that "unacceptable mistakes" were made at Dover, but he restrained his criticism of the officials involved, saying their mistakes were not intentional.

"Whether they constitute wrongdoing is another matter entirely," he said.

The Pentagon panel that Panetta appointed to review the mortuary operation at Dover, including the use of the landfill, is headed by Richard Carmona, a former U.S. surgeon general, and includes a licensed funeral director and a forensic pathologist.

The Air Force investigation released this week cited "gross mismanagement" at Dover from 2008 to 2010 after concluding that mortuary officials twice lost body parts of U.S. troops killed in Afghanistan, and once cut off a deceased Marine's arm bone without his family's consent.

Col. Robert H. Edmondson, former commander of the facility, received a letter of reprimand, essentially ending his military career. His civilian deputy, Trevor Dean, and the former mortuary director, Quinton R. Keel, were demoted and transferred to nonsupervisory jobs.

But the Office of Special Counsel, a federal agency that investigates whistle-blower complaints, sharply criticized the Air Force for not taking "sufficient disciplinary action against the officials responsible." The agency also said it was investigating possible reprisals against three mortuary employees who disclosed the problems at Dover.

Panetta said he ordered the Air Force secretary to review the punishments and to investigate whether reprisals were taken against whistle-blowers.

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

david.cloud@latimes.com

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