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Dover AFB Takes a Big Chance With the Honor of our War DeadTim King Salem-News.com
The process depicted in the film Taking Chance with Kevin Bacon was not followed by the Air Force; the only people who were in trouble are those who blew the whistle on the practices.
(SALEM) - I'm following two stories closely that involve our nation's war dead, and it seems almost timely and logical that the news would be released today about the U.S. Air Force mishandling the remains of Americans killed in the battle theaters overseas. Apparently they are making as little of it as possible, however the Secretary of the Air Force Public Affairs office did issue a press release.
Air Force officials said today that they have completed a year-long investigation of the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware, the point of entry for U.S. service members who are killed or die in Iraq, Afghanistan and other places Americans fight and die.
The service claims to have implemented multiple corrective actions and they say they took action regarding three senior mortuary officials responsible for operations at AFMAO after some employees complained about the handling of certain cases.
However the people who mishandled the remain of our war dead with disrespect didn't even lose their jobs. Perhaps that underscores the extent of the problem, and why is the Air Force allowed to handle this important duty anyway?
Knowing that Marines like my friend Nick Burgin who was with Marine Corps Mortuary Affairs in Iraq risked their lives to recover those killed in action, the notion of personnel at ultra-safe Dover AFB slacking off is repulsive.
I included these images because they are important. Salem-News.com was the first U.S. news agency in history to carry photos and personal information about military casualties at the time of initial informational release. I spent many hours learning about each of these fallen Americans and I do not believe too much could be invested to ensure that the highest levels of honor are respected. Who were they? What did their loss represent beyond the obvious? How anyone could mistreat their remains is beyond me.
The Air Force inspector general's office states that the investigation into the improper handing of our dead began in June 2010.
"The investigation focused primarily on the handling of remains of four service members. The Air Force inspector general's investigation was conducted in coordination with other federal offices and included nearly 50 interviews and an extensive review of mortuary operating procedures. Investigators found no evidence of anyone intentionally mishandled remains, but concluded the mortuary staff failed to maintain accountability while processing portions of remains for three service members. While it is likely that disposition of remains was by an appropriate method, it could not be shown that it was in accordance with the families' directions."
The official press release appears to greatly minimize this series of events surrounding what is supposed to be a sacred process. The Air Force somehow glossed over the fact that those who blew the whistle on the disrespectful mishandling, which was widespread and varied.
Of course we are in an age of whistleblower retaliation, and the Washington Post reports that, contrary to the Air Force claim whistleblowers in the case did not suffer retaliation, they say they did.
One of them was terminated in September 2010; another mortuary inspector who also cooperated in the investigation was also let go. Neither was rehired until after the Office of Special Counsel intervened.
Good job Dover!
As expected, the inspector general failed to uphold the 14 accusations that were filed against three senior mortuary officials. Air Force officials instead claimed that they, "found no evidence of criminal wrongdoing", and that they lacked sufficient evidence proving that the rules and regulations were broken. So much for whistleblowers.
The Washington Post also included this humdinger: that incidents ranged from "endangering public health to losing a dead soldier’s ankle to sawing off a deceased Marine’s arm bone without informing his family. The whistleblowers also complained that the Dover mortuary permitted an Army hospital in Germany to ship fetal remains in re-used cardboard boxes back to the United States for burial instead of in more-dignified aluminum transfer cases".
The Washington Post, in referring to, "The grisly findings at Dover", wrote:
"The sloppy handling of troops’ remains at Dover and Arlington painfully undercuts what the military has long borne as a sacred obligation: to treat its fallen members and their families with utmost levels of dignity and honor".
It's all the families get. After losing a loved one, traditionally, a family can at least count on a reverent, established process for the handling of remains.
For their part, the Air Force also stated:
"Each family received remains of their service member for interment; the staff, however, was not able to ensure additional portions of remains were handled in a manner consistent with the families' instructions.
"The Air Force determined senior AFMAO officials failed to provide proper management and corrective actions when they did not respond appropriately to indications that procedures were inadequate to prevent problems related to the tracking of portions of human remains".
The Air Force admits that the mortuary staff "could have communicated more clearly with the representatives of a sister service about restorative actions taken to prepare the remains of a service member, killed by an improvised explosive device, whose family requested to view him in uniform."
They admit that the investigation found deficiencies in administrative procedures, documentation and electronic record keeping.
"The investigation concluded that the mission was always conducted with reverence, dignity, honor and respect for all served through the facility," said Gen. Norton Schwartz, the Air Force chief of staff.
Air Force officials have contacted designated family representatives of the four families directly affected and discussed these matters with them personally.
Again though, the whistleblowers alleged far more than just four occurrences of the behavior.
The Dover mortuary's staff consists of members of all branches of the military, including civilians and reservists. The staff includes mortuary affairs specialists, morticians and other technical experts. The staff operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week and regularly responds to the trauma of war as staff members prepare the remains of fallen warriors under often-difficult circumstances. Since 2003, the mortuary center has prepared more than 6,300 deceased individuals for return to their loved ones.
Families of fallen service members may contact the Air Force toll free at 1-855-637-2583 or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org if they have questions about this investigation or Air Force mortuary operations.
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