Twin Outrages Over Mistreatment of Troop Remains

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The outrage over the gross mismanagement of the remains of U.S. troops at Dover Air Force base is centering on two unfortunate aspects: dishonor for America's war dead and the way the mortuary's well-meaning whistle-blowers were treated. Yesterday, The Washington Post reported that the remains of troops were burned and the ashes were dumped into a Virginia landfill between 2003 and 2008—a process that was "typically withheld from the relatives of the fallen service member":

Lt. Gen. Darrell G. Jones, the Air Force’s deputy chief for personnel, said the body parts were cremated, then incinerated, and then taken to a landfill by a military contractor. He likened the procedure to the disposal of medical waste.

The initial response to the story centered on a reflection on how America cares for its fallen soldiers. An editorial in the New Jersey's Star-Ledger says the disgrace can't be tolerated. "Dover AFB is considered military sacred ground, where the war dead are brought home with all the honors and pomp reflecting their supreme sacrifice," the editorial board writes. "With these revelations, a ritual of war has been exposed as a sham with few standards and little quality control. All those who profess their pride and support for the troops should express their outrage. Wearing a flag pin isn’t enough. We need to get this right."  James Joyner at Outside the Beltway added "This is truly appalling. While I’m not overly sentimental about the treatment of dead bodies, it’s an incredibly sensitive matter for most." 

The article also prompted calls from legislators, including statements from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Senator Susan Collins, ranking Republican on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee and Senator Claire McCaskill. Pelosi said "We will do everything possible to strengthen oversight and prevent future injustices” while in a separate statement Collins said it was "truly outrageous to learn that some of those entrusted to handle the remains of our fallen heroes may have compromised a sacred trust.”

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The three whistle-blowers who exposed the story also became the center of attention. They were James Parsons, an embalming technician, Mary Ellen Spera, a mortuary inspector and William Zwicharowski, a senior mortuary inspector. They appeared on the CBS Evening News last night to talk about what they were up against when they came forward, which has caused some outrage.

Channel KTBS TV explains their role:

The investigation came after three whistle-blowers at Dover told of their concerns about the improper preparation, handling and transport of remains: -- Investigators said a fragment of remains of two F-15 crew members who died when their plane went down in Afghanistan in 2009 disappeared from a small plastic bag at the mortuary. -- A Marine’s left arm was sawed off to fit into a military uniform without consent from the family

The fact that officials at Dover tried to fire one of the whistle-blowers has good government types outraged. "Not only did the Air Force not fire the mortuary commander and two other mortuary supervisors, but one of these mortuary officials tried to obstruct the investigation by firing a whistleblower," writes Jesselyn Radack at the Government Accountability Project. "As if getting fired isn't bad enough retaliation against a whistleblower, it is now a precursor to prosecuting the whistleblower under the Espionage Act for embarrassing the administration."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.